It would be simple enough to say that mathematics is being done, and that those who do it are mathematicians. Yet, the history and culture of the mathematical community immediately complicate these statements. In her book A New Year's Present from a Mathematician (CRC Press, 2020), Snezana Lawrence guides a tour of European mathematical history that broadens conventional ideas of who mathematicians are and what we do. Framed as journey across the desert out from Alexandria, the book recounts a vignette from European mathematical history anchored to each month of the year, as drops of creativity and wisdom to sustain the trek.
It is not unusual for books on the history of mathematics to tell very human stories about their often famous subjects. What is remarkable about Lawrence's collection is the breadth of these stories: Her subjects were idealists, pragmatists, mystics, skeptics, radicals, ascetics, and collectives. (Contrast, for example, the self-aware spite of Isaac Newton with the defiant good humor of Jean-Baptiste d'Alembert.) They contributed a mix each of original study, stewardship, and education. (Witness the precocious and persistent advocacy of Maria Agnesi and the devoted reciprocity of Johannes Kepler.) And they may or may not have been considered in their time, or even considered themselves, mathematicians.
This book also showcases the diversity of mechanisms through which mathematics is transmitted and expanded. The projects undertaken by Lawrence's subjects are inspired by surviving ancient texts, popular treatments, and personal correspondence, and they yielded instructional texts, organizational schema, reference works, and popular fiction still in circulation today. The book drove home for me that the history of mathematics is ultimately a history of dialogue, and one that any person has the potential to contribute to—and thereby to be a mathematician.
Suggested companion work: "Interstellar" (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Snezana Lawrence is a mathematical historian, with a particular interest in the links between mathematics, architecture, and the belief systems related to mathematics. Her work on the creativity, identity, and engagement in the learning of mathematics has taken her to be involved in national and international initiatives to promote the use of the history of mathematics in mathematics education. She maintains the website Maths Is Good For You! and tweets @snezanalawrence.
Cory Brunson is a Research Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida.
Cory Brunson is an Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data.