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Mathematics in Victorian Britain

Edited by Raymond Flood, Adrian Rice and Robin Wilson
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 2011, 480 PAGES PRICE £29.99 (HARDBACK) ISBN 978-0-19-960139-4
A 20% discount is also available for IMA members

Mathematics in Victorian Britain is a collection of essays edited by Raymond Flood, Adrian Rice and Robin Wilson. Ten of the chapters consider specific areas of mathematics, six relate to institutions or locations within the British Empire and one charts the rise of the professional association and journal. The book is readable in its entirety or accessible by theme. It provides a useful reference text for the specialist historian with names they will be well used to (Cayley, Sylvester, De Morgan et al) weaving their way through the book, but in a variety of contextual situations. The mathematician who does not have much historical knowledge and is seeking to remedy this will not be disappointed. The book will also suit the general reader, who may find some parts require a more detailed understanding, although this will not detract from their wider appreciation.

The scene is set in the foreword by Adam Hart-Davis who comments on the fact that in 1837 five hundred patents were applied for and there were two hundred and fifty thousand applications per year by the end of the century. The book covers a period of rapid industrial growth, where great swathes of the countryside population moved to towns and cities. It captures the renaissance spirit of the age detailing astronomer and meteorologist Adolphe Quetelet applying astronomical error laws “to the distribution of human features such as height and girth” leading to his creation of the ‘average man’ and the normal distribution, concepts linked to the development of‘ vital statistics’ and their usage to improve public health for the masses.

The trend is to specialisation as the century progresses. The chapter on Cambridge University accounts for the streamlining of the mathematical tripos, when Bertrand Russell sat the exam in 1894, it “was barely recognisable as the same exam of half-a-century earlier” and examined a “knowledge in a branch of the subject that was acquired towards the end of their studies” in comparison to the wide range of subjects at the beginning of the Victorian era. The role that Cambridge had at the forefront of higher education in mathematics is telling throughout the book.

In an age of opportunity schoolteacher George Boole’s article ‘Exposition of a general theory of linear transformations’ is published in The Cambridge Mathematical Journal giving him the prominence to take his ideas further on to a national scale. Research journals and associations underpinned the growing professionalising of mathematics. An interesting account is given of the Association for the Improvement of Geometrical Teaching (AIGT) and the strong opposition it faced when formed to shape the debate against the teaching of Euclid.

Perceived lack of continental rigour and thoroughness in proof, combined with a less well-established British research tradition are discussed in terms of their implications for mathematics in Victorian Britain. This is contrasted with the strength of mathematical physics in a time of marked utilitarianism.

The book is clearly written and edited. Asides worthy of further research abound. A broad range of themes are examined in a reference resource of material that is normally published in journals accessible only to the specialist historian. A must for anyone interested in this period.

Wallace A Ferguson, CMath MIMA, CSci
Chatham and Clarendon Grammar School, Ramsgate
Mathematics Today February 2012

Mathematics in Victorian Britain can also be purchased at Amazon.co.uk