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uni'wissen 01(3)-2011_ENG

From time to time it’s amusing to think back about what one’s math teacher was like the prototype to end all prototypes. A prototype that doesn’t seem to have changed much in the past century: “Blue glasses, a good dose of absent- mindedness, dry as a bone, the necessary con- sequence of representing the driest subject of them all.” Writing in 1904, Moritz Cantor already knew all of the clichés that have been associated with mathematics teachers for centuries. The professor for the history of mathematics wrote an essay against the misconception that mathe- maticians are incapable of creativity and fantasy and contributed to a hotly debated topic in the early 20th century. In plays, letters, magazines, and philosophical tracts, humanists and natural scientists were disputing questions like: What makes a good mathematician? And what does he have in common with a creative spirit, a poet, or a writer? High in Empiricism, Low in Creativity This discussion would not have been possible in the early modern period. People back then be- lieved in the virtues of mathematics. Not only did it teach pupils valuable skills in arithmetic and logical reasoning, it also built character, shaped the homo mathematicus, regarded back then as the king of exact science and logic, a noble seeker of truth. With these credentials, who would want to blemish their reputation with cre- ativity, the dubious weapon of the philosopher? But beginning in the 19th century, people be- gan to criticize this traditional dichotomy. “Wit, art, fantasy, and life on the one side, and calcu- lation, rules, monotony, and pedantry on the oth- er these fronts began to crumble,” says the Ger- manist Dr. Andrea Albrecht. In her habilitation thesis, which combines literature and cultural studies with the history of mathematics and phi- losophy, she is investigating how mathematics and mathematicians are portrayed in literary and cultural texts. “My main emphasis is on dis- course about mathematics, so the topic is not mathematical in and of itself.” When a mathema- tician attempts to explain his field to a non-ex- pert, that doesn’t have anything to do with formu- las, square roots, or compound fractions: “When mathematicians talk and write about mathemat- ics, this communication is a constant attempt to develop a self-image and establish it in cultural Emmy Noether was the founder of modern ­mathematics but in the Third Reich she was ­branded as a representative of “Jewish mathe­ matics,” which the Nazis derided as being too ­abstract and theoretical. Source: University Archive, Göttingen Look who’s arguing now: For centuries mathema- ticians were thought of as civilized academics who conducted their ­discussions in a peace- ful manner but that had more to do with self-­ promotion than reality. Picture: Becker 25uni'wissen 03