History of Oxford Mathematics cover

History of Oxford Mathematics


The study of mathematics in Oxford has a long and colorful history. This NoteStream covers the story from its earliest days forward.

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History of Oxford Mathematics

Early Days: 13th Century

In 1214 Oxford University elected its first Chancellor, Bishop Robert Grosseteste.

For mathematics, this was a fortunate decision, as he was founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford and particularly interested in geometry. He once wrote:

'The usefulness of considering lines, angles and figures is the greatest, because it is impossible to understand natural philosophy without them. By the power of geometry, the careful observer of natural things can give the causes of all natural effects.'

Indeed, Grosseteste’s most famous admirer was Roger Bacon, whose Folly Bridge observatory became a place of pilgrimage for scientists. Centuries later, Samuel Pepys would note, after visiting Bacon’s study, that Oxford was a ‘mighty fine place’.

Collegiate Oxford

By the early 14th century scholars were organising themselves into colleges.

Merton College in particular became pre-eminent in scientific studies, becoming famous throughout Europe as its members tried to quantify natural phenomena such as heat, light, and colour. Most important was Thomas Bradwardine, the greatest English mathematician of the time, who in 1349 became Archbishop of Canterbury, but died of the Black Death soon after.

Back then, Oxford’s students arrived in their early teens and were assigned tutors who were responsible for their moral behaviour. The curriculum comprised the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric and dialectic - known as the trivium- was taught as a 4-year course, followed by a 3-year span, covering the Greek mathematical arts of arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry, known as the quadrivium.

Merton College

Merton College

Merton College, the first fully self-governing College in the University, was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, sometime Chancellor of England and later Bishop of Rochester.

Mathematics Goes Hi-Tech

The first book was printed in Oxford in 1478, just two years after Caxton set up the first printing press in England.

This began a long tradition of printing in Oxford: In 1586 the University of Oxford was formally given limited rights to print books by Elizabeth I. In the 1630’s, King Charles I further extended Oxford’s printing tradition when he entitled the University to print 'all manner of books'.

The first mathematical book to emerge from the press was the 1520 Compotus Manualis, which showed how to calculate the date of Easter on one’s fingers. Later, Robert Recorde’s 1557 algebra text The Whetstone of Witte, contained the first appearance of what we now know as the equals sign — two parallel lines, because, as the book explains, ‘noe.2. thynges, can be moare equalle’.

Algebra in 1557

Algebra in 1557

Robert Recorde’s 1557 algebra text The Whetstone of Witte

Mathematics Starts to Flourish

In 1619, Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton, founded the Savilian Professorships of Geometry and Astronomy — in reaction to what he viewed at the time as the terrible state of Oxford mathematics.

The first geometry professor was Henry Briggs, who improved Napier’s new logarithms, calculating by hand extensive tables of base-10 logs to fourteen decimal places, an incredibly laborious, but astonishingly useful process, as his logs became incorporated into the newly invented slide rule. After the English Civil War, the mathematical scene moved to Wadham College. In 1648 its Warden John Wilkins gathered a group of brilliant men — known as the Oxford Philosophical Society — to discuss what they termed ‘philosophical experiments’. Wilkins’s group included John Wallis (Savilian Professor of Geometry), Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren. Members of this illustrious group went on to form the Royal Society in London, still active to this day.

The 18th Century

Wallis’s successor as Savilian Professor of Geometry in 1704 was Edmond Halley.

While still an undergraduate, he sailed to the British-owned island of St Helena in the south Atlantic to catalogue the Southern stars. Among his many achievements were cajoling Sir Isaac Newton to write Principia Mathematica, becoming Astronomer Royal and predicting the return of the comet that now bears his name.

Throughout the 18th century, Newtonian philosophy flourished in the Old Ashmolean Building. It was the first public museum in England and the first purpose-built public museum in the world (these days, the building is called the Museum of the History of Science). It also contained the first science teaching rooms and teaching laboratory in Oxford. The Radcliffe Observatory was created in the 1770’s, and was Europe’s best-equipped astronomical observatory at the time.

Understanding Our Solar System

Understanding Our Solar System

An “armillary orrery” is the technical name for a model of objects in the sky. It combines a model of the solar system (an “orrery”) with a framework of rings, centered on Earth, representing important celestial lines, such as longitude and latitude (“armillary”).

[Picture from the Museum of the History of Science.]

The 19th Century

Significant changes came to Oxford in the 19th century, when science degrees were introduced, examinations began to include written papers (instead of purely oral exams), and the University Museum was built.

There were three notable Savilian Professors of Geometry at this time.

Baden Powell wrote texts in geometry and calculus and helped popularize science (one of his sons, incidentally, went on to found the Boy Scout movement). Powell’s successor was Henry Smith, who made major contributions to algebra and number theory. Smith died relatively young and was succeeded by James Joseph Sylvester who, being a Jew, had been unable to secure an Oxbridge post. After the rules changed in 1871, Sylvester became professor at age 69.

The Modern Era

The 20th and 21st centuries have continued Oxford’s tradition of mathematical thought.

G. H. Hardy established a world-famous school in analysis and number theory, while Charles Coulson, a valued scholar, was involved with the founding of OXFAM in 1942.

Henry Whitehead established a notable school of topology that attracted scholars from around the world. A keen pig farmer, Whitehead claimed to derive mathematical inspiration by scratching his pigs’ backs for an hour every afternoon.

Three Oxford mathematicians have been awarded Fields Medals. The mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize, Fields Medals were introduced in 1936 and are awarded only once every four years.

Roger Penrose

Roger Penrose

More recently, Sir Roger Penrose is a major international figure in cosmology and astrophysics, who researched the mathematics of tiling.

Penrose tiles, named after him, create beautiful, natural-looking arrangements when used.

[Picture of Penrose tiling, depicted in an oil painting by Urs Schmid.]

Andrew Wiles vs. Fermat

Andrew Wiles vs. Fermat

Fermat's Last Theorem, depicted above, was formulated 250 years ago by Pierre de Fermat.

Despite being relatively easy to understand as a conjecture, proving it has stymied the greatest mathematical minds ever since.

Sir Andrew Wiles, once a Merton undergraduate, was captivated by the problem. At the age of 35, he embarked on a six year effort to prove the conjecture correct. He eventually succeeded in 1994, to the surprise of many mathematicians.

Sir Andrew recently returned to Oxford, and the building that now houses Oxford University’s Mathematical Institute was named after him.