Exploring the Past of Math

Berkeley Connect Math students visit the Bancroft Library

Berkeley Connect Math students were in for a treat when they took a trip to the Bancroft Library last week. Guided by the Bancroft’s Lee Anne Titangos, students got the opportunity to browse everything from the first printed version of Euclid’s Elements to a letter written by Albert Einstein – and learn a finger counting method used in medieval Europe!

The Bancroft Library houses one of the largest collections of rare historical books and documents in the United States. It is also one of only a few collections that allows access to undergraduates. Named after Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose personal collection laid the foundations of the library, the library now holds over 600,000 books and 55,000 linear feet of manuscripts and is home to many special collections.

Displayed for Berkeley Connect Math were many documents from names the students knew well, including Newton, Galileo, and Einstein. Many were books that marked important discoveries and changes in the field of science and math. The first one Lee Anne introduced was a handwritten medieval manuscript of Euclid’s Elements from the 1460s. Interestingly enough, the printing press had already been introduced by that time, but was then unable to print the detailed diagrams. It wasn’t until 1482 that the first printed version – also on display for students – was published. Students then took a look at  a comprehensive mathematics textbook written by Luca Pacioli, which covered everything from common equations to early accounting. It was the first to be printed not in Latin, but in Italian – an important shift in the proliferation of knowledge. They also got to see the first book on algebra printed in English, written by Robert Recorde.

A particularly popular books among the students was one that was written by John Graunt in 1676. Inspired by the bubonic plague and a desire to prevent future plagues, Graunt began chronicling all the ways people died in London, inadvertently becoming the first demographer in England. Another unlikely statistician’s work was also featured – that of Florence Nightingale, who used data she collected to discern and advocate for the ways to improve hospital care. The book was open to one of Nightingale’s polar charts, an early version of the pie chart–it has been said that she popularized the use of this now common ways of representing data. Others were excited about being able to flip through the mathematical scrawls and notes of Pierre-Simon Laplace and Alfred Tarski. Students also got to see original texts of books by Kepler, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton. In addition, the selection included works from Julia Bowman Robinson, Oliver Byrne, Samuel Sturmy, and Charles Babbage, as well as a letter written by Albert Einstein to George Cecil Jaffe.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant