The History of Number Theory

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. James attended a British Society for the History of Mathematics event hosted by Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics

bshmBirkbeck welcomed the British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM) to its campus on Saturday 21st May, for a conference looking to trace the fascinating, and often surprising, history of number theory.

The event, ‘The History of Number Theory’ had been organised by BSHM with support from the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics and saw speakers trace a history stretching from antiquity to the 21st Century, from thinkers such as Euclid to Fermat and Gang Tian.

Speaking after the event, Professor Sarah Hart said “It brought together a wide array of people; there were many students and academics, but also those with just an interest in the subject. Having such a diverse audience truly enriched the conversation.”

In the second iteration of what both Birkbeck and the Society anticipate to be a continuing annual fixture, the conference welcomed speakers eager to bring to life theories that have engaged mathematicians for centuries (and some, for millennia).

The History of Number Theory - Robin Wilson - Eulers Number TheoryAlmost 100 attendees arrived at Birkbeck for the conference, a place where Louis Joel Mordell, responsible for the Mordell Equation, took a lecturer post in 1913. Ben Fairbairn, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at Birkbeck, discussed Mordell‘s impact, saying “Mordell’s time at Birkbeck saw him solve two conjectures posed by Srinivasa Ramanujan, the hugely influential Indian mathematician. Of the three conjectures posited in ‘On Arithmetical Functions’, Mordell solved two at Birkbeck, with the third only being closed as recently as 1974!”

The conference also saw Simon Singh discuss the making of his hugely successful ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ documentary, produced for the BBC’s Horizon series and chronicling the esteemed mathematician’s problematic last theorem. Those wishing to get a flavour of the event can still find the documentary on BBC iPlayer.

With the conference covering millennia of fierce debate around Number Theory, an anecdote shared on the day by Ben Fairbairn and about Louis Joel Mordell best summarises the human side of the field: “He travelled by a certain train which should have got him to Birkbeck in time. But frequently the train arrived late. He pointed out the discrepancy between promise and performance to the Railway Company, who said that they would do something about it. And so they did: they adjusted the advertised time of arrival and, in consequence, the train now always arrived as advertised, but always too late for him.”

Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics offer a range of courses covering the material discussed at the conference. You can see how to join the British Society for the History of Mathematics by visiting their site.

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