Professor examines the roots of math in the US
By Rachel Carlsruh
American mathematics has a multifaceted history that struggled to begin after the
Revolutionary War. It aimed toward foreign-influenced programs and societies and eventually, at educational endeavors funded by the government.
Karen H. Parshall spoke in the Eccles conference center on Thursday about the
emergence of the American mathematical research community. "The topography of the
American mathematics landscape had many contours," she said.
Parshall, from the University of Virginia, has a master's degree in math, a doctorate in history and specializes in math-history. Thursday's lecture was her 100th invited address. She's also written two books and over 40 articles on the history of
"Our country's founders, especially including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, agreed that the U.S. needed a strong scientific community," said Parshall. "They believed that strength in science, meant strength in the economy."
However, Parshall said that during the first post-revolutionary years the U.S. had virtually no scientific community, except in embryo. The lack of financial support for mathematicians' educational needs was the main cause. Revolutionary debts were first priority.
"Early math education aimed toward developing student's logic and reasoning," she said. "Math wasn't studied for its own sake."
She continued, "At the beginning of 19th century, Americans realized that their science and math education was hopelessly outmoded on an international scale." Parshall said that the U.S. looked to France as an example.
According to Parshall, during the 1830's-1870's scientific activity received more support, and fields became more specialized. Scientific fields, including math, grew at a rapid rate because of increased government funding and foreign exploration. College and universities were the training grounds for U.S. scientists.
The attempt to create successful American scientific societies was initially a failure, she added. Almost no societies could recruit enough people to function. Finally, in what Parshall calls a major break-through, Hopkins University published the successful American Journal of Mathematics. "Not only did the journal survive," said Parshall, "it thrived. Math was beginning to find mass in the U.S."
"Another important turning-point in the math story," she continued, "was the influence of Felix Klein, a German mathematician." Parshall said that in the 1860s many students went abroad to search for the education they determined could not be found in the U.S., and they returned with new ideas and fresh perspectives.
"These students were major contributors in establishing graduate school, math clubs,
research programs and up-to-date curriculum," she said.
The emergence of the New York Mathematics Society also influenced education and
research issues. Parshall said that the society, formed in 1888, established new journals,
encouraged students to train abroad, and helped charter new universities. Consequently, by
1920, 12 universities offered doctorates in math.
Post-WWII emigrant mathematicians, including Emil Artin, Richard Courant and
Albert Einstein, benefitted U.S. mathematics in dramatic ways Parshall said. Many of these prominent mathematicians were political refugees who migrated to flee political confusion and with the formation of the government funded Institute for Advance Study, many of them found a niche, she added.
Their society was intended for research. The nine mathematicians were allowed the
luxury of being paid to "just think," said Parshall. The mathematical accomplishments of this
society were some of the greatest and most far-reaching that we'll ever see, she said.