Seminar in Humanistic Mathematics

Pre-requisite: Junior Standing

Instructors: Dr. Sarah J Greenwald and Dr. Eric Marland
Offices: Walker 324 and 326

Course Topics

The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics. [G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology]

In what ways do the mathematical topics in your courses pass (and fail) Hardy's test? Humanists "consider mathematics to be one of the humanities; who understand mathematics to have much in common with literature, philosophy, art, music, and criticism." [Alvin White, The Process of Education]

This course is organized around a series of intertwined themes that investigate the interface of mathematics with society, science, and everyday life. Topics include the tenuous relations of math and science with religion and the classic humanities, along with mainstream societies. We will explore different aspects of mathematics and the culture and ethics of research mathematics. Perhaps we can answer the age old question, "What is mathematics and where did it come from?". We will also move past the mathematics and meet "the man behind the curtain" and discover that in many cases the mathematician is a she. So we will explore not only the role of mathematics, but also the role of mathematicians in society and the way that mathematicians think, work, and perhaps even play. In other words, we will try to understand who these strange people are that sit around all day and "do math" and try to decipher why they do it?

The course will be based on class discussions of homework readings, short reflections, and a bit of research. You will also pursue a semester long project oriented toward your own personal interests in mathematics.

Course Goals

Reflections will connect course topics to previous and current coursework and the general education goals of
Thinking Critically and Creatively
Communicating Effectively
Understanding Responsibilities of Community Membership.

Sample Readings

  1. Davis, P. (1993). Thirty Years After the Two Cultures Controversy: A Mathematician's View. In Essays in Humanistic Mathematics. A.M. White, ed. MAA Notes, 22.
  2. Gowers, T. (2002). Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. Chapters 1, 2, 4, 5, 8.
  3. Hammond, A.L. (1978). Mathematics - Our Invisible Culture. In Mathematics Today. L.A. Steen, ed. Vintage Books. pp. 15-34.
  4. Hardy, G.H. (1940). A Mathematician's Apology, G.H. Hardy, Cambridge University Press.
  5. Henderson, D. (1996). Alive Mathematical Reasoning, Proceedings, 1996 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group, Halifax, NS: Mount Saint Vincent University Press, pp. 27-33.
  6. Lane, N. (2007). Innovation and Economic Competiveness. James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
  7. Hersh, R. (1990). Mathematics and Ethics, The Mathematical Intelligencer, 12(3), pp. 13-15.
  8. Ruelle, D. (2007). The Mathematician's Brain: A Personal Tour Through the Essentials of Mathematics and Some of the Great Minds Behind Them, Princeton University Press. Chapters 1 and 16.
  9. Vizgin, V.I. (1999). On the Emotional Assumptions Without Which One Could Not Effectively Investigate the Laws of Nature. Historico-Mathematical Investigations, 39(4), pp. 343-352.
  10. Whitehead, A.N. (1992). An Introduction to Mathematics, Oxford University Press. Chapter 1.


Any work turned in late will be worth half of the original points. Work that is not clear (handwriting, grammar, professional speech, or otherwise) will be counted incorrect. All work must be turned by Reading Day to receive any credit.

Participation 30% You are expected to contribute to discussions in a meaningful way. You must be prepared for each class discussion and participate on ASULearn. Students are responsible for all materials presented and discussed during class, including any changes to assignments, deadlines, or requirements. Attendance is required at ALL classes, and will form a portion of your grade.

Projects 45%

Final Project 25%

Cell Phone Policy

Cell phone should not ring in the classroom. Please set your cell phones to vibrate.

Other Policies

Remember also that we get paid to have office hours. Make use of the resources available to you!

By the request of the University Office of Disability Services, Appalachian State University is committed to making reasonable accommodations for individuals with documented qualifying disabilities in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Those seeking accommodations based on a substantially limiting disability must contact and register with The Office of Disability Services (ODS) at or 828-262-3056. Once registration is complete, individuals will meet with ODS staff to discuss eligibility and appropriate accommodations.

When writing up work, be sure to give acknowledgment where it is due. Submitting someone else's work as your own (PLAGIARISM) is a serious violation of the University's Academic Integrity Code.