It is often tempting to think of technology as a feature only of our modern era; something that is associated with mobile devices, computers and tablets and the ability to share and access information and content anywhere, anytime. 

There is a tendency to look forward and wonder what will be possible next, as devices become ever more portable and accessible without ever pausing to look backwards for a moment and reflect upon the people who helped create the body of knowledge and skills that make all that technology possible.

For young people, learning about the people who were critical in building the basics of our modern understanding in the fields of mathematics, physics, computing and engineering can be a powerful and fascinating experience.

It brings learning to life and helps them to realise that there were real people behind all those ideas and concepts which we so often take for granted.

EUCLID

Often thought of as the father of geometry, Euclid was a Greek mathematician.

For a man so influential on our modern use of mathematics, surprisingly little is known of his early life or the exact date and place of his birth, but he is believed to have lived around the third to fourth century BCE.

His major work was known as The Elements and in this text he formulated a number of concepts which are still in use today.

His writings focus on geometric reasoning based on a number of axioms or statements, as well as on mathematical areas including number theory.

If you have ever tried to find concise explanations for how to determine highest common factor of two or more integers or the process to use when trying to find the square root of a number, spare a thought for the good folk of ancient Greece who had to contend with Euclid’s extensive body of work which ran to a massive 13 volumes of writings!

ARCHIMEDES

The third century BCE in Greece was a bit of a golden time for all things mathematical as, along with Euclid, there was also Archimedes, famous for the ‘Eureka!’ exclamation, reputedly based on his solution to the problem of determining the volume of a solid immersed in a liquid.

Archimedes also spent much of his time pondering spheres and cylinders, deducing through geometry the largest sphere which could be fitted inside a cylinder.

He worked out there was a relationship between the surface area of the cylinder and the sphere, and that this ratio was the same as the one which existed between the volume of the cylinder and the sphere.

Archimedes also developed the Archimedes screw which was used to move water from low lying areas into irrigation channels.

This method is still in use today in places such as the Netherlands, where it is used to drain water from low lying areas of land.

The Archimedes screw is also used for modern applications such as in water treatment plants, irrigation projects and reclamation of wetlands.

HYPATIA

Living in Egypt, Hypatia (also referred to as Hypatia of Alexandria) was an early mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who lived around 350 AD.

She was the only daughter of Theon of Alexandria who was also a mathematician.

It is likely the pair collaborated on their work and there remains no firm evidence to identify her own writings from those of her father.

Hypatia is credited with important discoveries within the field of what is now referred to as engineering, in particular developing the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density and gravity of liquids.

She also worked on the charting of celestial bodies and edited some of her father’s writings, such as his commentary on Euclid’s work.

As a mathematician, Hypatia wrote on conic sections, continuing the work of Apollonius, which divided cones into different parts by a plane.

This work later developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas and ellipses.

Although her legacy lives on today through many fictional works of film and text, as well as through the application of her work in engineering, maths and science, Hypatia herself met with a somewhat grisly end.

Known as a pagan and scholar, Hypatia is believed to have been killed by a Christian mob who felt she had incited religious turmoil.

The story goes that she was murdered in the streets and her body burnt, while her students hurriedly fled to Athens where they continued her work in relative safety.

PYTHAGORAS

Students who struggle to master the finer points of determining the unknown length of a triangle, or understanding exactly why there is a relationship between the two shorter sides and that long bit known as a hypotenuse, can lay the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of a man called Pythagoras.

Born in around 570 BCE, Pythagoras developed the theorem, still in use today, which allows the length of an unknown side of a triangle to be found when the other two sides are known.

Secondary students the world over are taught the concept of Pythagoras Theorem and begin to see how it can apply to everything from helping a builder establish if a wall is straight, to a distance runner calculating the distance run across country between two points on a map.

BIGOLLO

Leonardo Bigollo (perhaps better known by his nickname Fibonacci) was an Italian mathematician from the medieval period.

Born around 1170, Bigollo wrote several works on mathematics, including a commentary on the ‘Elements’ of Euclid.

Bigollo is often credited with developing the series of numbers known as the Fibonacci sequence, although this sequence is thought to have been in use in India several centuries earlier than Bigollo’s time.

The Fibonacci sequence begins 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, where each number in the sequence is generated by finding the sum of the two preceding numbers (so O+1 = 1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8 and so on).

Bigollo was the first to apply this number sequence in Western mathematics, using its application when solving a problem regarding the growth of a rabbit population in his work Liber Abaci (the book of calculation).

It is not known whether Bigollo was aware of the Golden Ratio of 1.618:1 to which successive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence are aligned.

The Fibonaci sequence can be seen in nature when examining the petals on a flower or the spirals in a plant’s leaves as they extend outwards from a central stem, which are often formed using successive numbers from the sequence.

Many artists use the sequence to create works of art with a geometric theme, by finding the square of the numbers in the sequence and then creating works which contain elements that are the resulting squares in length and width.

A great time to share this knowledge with students of course is on ‘Fibonacci Day’ – November 23 (which, when written in month/day format uses a Fibonacci sequence of 1,1,2,3).

When better to send your students out into the playground to count plant spirals and create art works based on Fibonacci sequences?

RENEE DESCARTES

Racing forward several centuries, we come to the work of Renee Descartes, who was a part of the mathematical landscape of the 1500s and 1600s.

Not content with limiting himself to work in a single field, Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician and scientist.

His philosophy led him to question and challenge the basis for the truth he observed around him, and led ultimately to the famous statement ‘I think, therefore I am’.

He is perhaps best known for developing the system by which geometric shapes can be represented by equations and vice versa, using a system of coordinates to identify discrete points in a plane.

This system is known today as the Cartesian coordinate system which utilises algebraic expressions to describe and locate geometrical shapes and points.

ADA LOVELACE

Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was born in 1815 in England.

She was a gifted student who was encouraged in her studies by her mother who was determined that Lovelace would avoid the curse of her father’s moodiness and unpredictable temperament through rigorous study.

The young Lovelace was taught by a range of teachers, including Mary Sommerville, a Scottish astronomer.

Lovelace met Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor when she was 17, and he encouraged and supported her work in mathematics.

He later became her mentor as she began studying advanced mathematics.

Key amongst her works are writings on the development of the first computer program, created in the mid 1800s.

This work led to our modern day use of computer programming, which may come as something of a surprise to Generation Z folk who believe firmly that life as we know it began with the invention of a smart phone!

Importance of History

For some young people, the offerings of the maths or science classroom can sometimes seem a little staid and dull, lacking real life relevance and connection to their everyday experiences.

Showing how real people were behind some of the greatest and most fundamental mathematical and scientific principles can sometimes help make that connection real for students and perhaps inspire them to persist even in situations where their own learning can be challenged and tested.

Introducing students to the people behind the Cartesian coordinate system or the principles of geometry can help reinforce the notion that we are all, after all, simply understanding what has gone before and then working towards building a growing body of knowledge and skill over time.