Communicating Mathematics: a historical and personal journey

Wilson, Robin (2009). Communicating Mathematics: a historical and personal journey. Newsletter of the European Mathematical Society, 71(1) pp. 15–20.



My topic is ‘Communicating mathematics’: something we all try to do through our various teaching activities and publications. I was first directed to think about what this involves by a 1990 examination paper for an Open University history of maths course, which I was studying as a part-time OU student. While sweating it out in the exam room I saw Question 15 that began: Describe some of the ways in which mathematicians have communicated their results to each other. My enjoyment in answering this question has led me over the past eighteen years to think about the various ways in which we communicate mathematics – to our students, to our colleagues, and to the general public. I won’t be able to cover every form of communication we use, but here are some ways that maths has been propagated over the centuries. As you can see below, I’ve divided my presentation into two main parts: the spoken word, on everything from lectures and TV broadcasts to casual conversations in the corridor, and the written word, on everything from research papers and books to newspaper articles and websites. In each part I’ll try to give both a historical and a personal account, with a wide range of examples covering 4000 years.

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