Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A well-willer to the Mathematicks

I have just read Benjamin Wardhaugh's fascinating book Poor Robin's Prophecies: A curious Almanac, and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain (Oxford).  It is a fascinating account of popular mathematics during, essentially, the long eighteenth century, based on a comic almanac "written by POOR ROBIN Knight of the Burnt-Island, a well-willer to the Mathematicks", first published in 1663 and which lasted - latterly as Old Poor Robin - till 1828.  Poor Robin's almanac contained parodies, as well as standard almanac information, and Wardhaugh uses the almanac and other popular publications to explore the uses of mathematics over a period when it was, for some, a means to social advancement or a route into a career, and when sophisticated mathematical problems appeared in publications like The Ladies' Diary.

Does spirit of Poor Robin of Saffron Walden (for the meridian of which the original almanac was calculated, according to its title-page) survive today?  I think Poor Robin's attitude to mathematics can be found in TV shows like Dara O Briain's School of Hard Sums and in the mathematical jokes and puzzles which seem to achieve a wide circulation on Facebook (and, if my Facebook stream is typical, are appreciated and reposted by many who have no particular mathematical background).  Wardhaugh's book reminds us that the value of mathematics has always been questioned, but that even so there has always been popular interest in all kinds of mathematics: both traits are evident today!

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