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Review of Mathematics Emerging: A Sourcebook 1540-1900

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Mathematics Emerging: A Sourcebook 1540–1900, Jacqueline Stedall, 2008. 680 pp. illustrations, bibliography, appendix: “People, Institutions, and Journals,” and index. $110 hardcover, ISBN 978–019–922690–0. New York: Oxford University Press.


Over the past twenty years, the renewed interest in mathematics history has spawned a rich variety of publications and research. One of the latest additions to this stream of understanding is Jacqueline Stedall’s Mathematics Emerging. It is a source book containing excerpts from and information about 135 selected references spanning the years 1542 to 1900. Relevant materials have been carefully chosen to reflect the mathematical concerns of the times. This selection of excerpts comes from treatises, personal correspondence, and scholarly papers. The text is divided into 18 chapters, each of which concerns a specific topic or aspect of mathematical development from the beginning of the consolidation of classical mathematical writings upon which 15th century mathematics authors built, to 19th century questions concerning the very foundations of mathematics. Excellent facsimiles of the primary sources include original formats, typeface employed, and layouts. This feature, seeing the real words as they existed, in itself provides insights into the mathematical thinking and communication venues of the time. English language translations, where necessary, accompany each primary source. The author prefaces all entries with brief introductions and follows them with further illuminating comments. A more penetrating encounter with the information and knowledge contained in these original resources is left as an adventure for the reader.

Advice to seek out original resources and “read the Masters” has echoed throughout the history of mathematics: J. L. Lagrange (1736-1813) urged his correspondents “to read the master Euler” and Neils Henrik Abel (1802-1829) counseled novice mathematicians “to study the masters.” Some contemporary university instructors have incorporated such a feature into their teaching of the history of mathematics. This book evolved from such a teaching experience involving Jacqueline Stedall and her colleagues at Oxford University. Here in the United States, David Pengelley, New Mexico State University, and Reinhard Laubenbacher, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, have been promoting such a movement. While on occasion I have required a reading of particular primary sources in a class, for the most part, such readings have been limited due to the linguistic abilities of my students. The publication of Mathematics Emerging lessens the problem. However, the level of the material in this book is best suited for senior level honors courses or graduate seminars focusing on the rise of modern (post-Renaissance) mathematics. Personally, I found it engrossing to work through some of the readings and thus better understand the genius of their authors. Well written, scholarly, and substantive in its coverage, this book should remain a classic reference for years to come. Thank you, Jacqueline Stedall for this accomplishment! I most highly recommend it for personal reference, possible classroom teaching, and certainly library acquisition.

Another review of Mathematics Emerging: A Sourcebook 1540-1900; also, see the MAA Review by Fernando Q. Gouvêa.

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Review of [i]Mathematics Emerging: A Sourcebook 1540-1900[/i]," Convergence (March 2012), DOI:10.4169/loci003863