Visit of J.A. Stedall (Open University, Milton Keynes)

October 24-31, 2000

From October 24 until 31 2000, Jacqueline A. Stedall will visit the Netherlands and give three lectures. The abstracts and the programme of the talks one may find below.


Tuesday October 24, Groningen University staff colloquium
Lecture: ``Procrastination, incomprehension, misjudgment''

Wednesday October 25, Nijmegen University staff colloquium
Lecture: ``Moving the alps''.

Friday October 27, Amsterdam Free University in alliance with CWI and GMFW
Lecture: ``Wallis versus Vossius''. This talk will be kept within the special history colloquium at the CWI.


Wallis versus Vossius: the beginning of the modern historical study of mathematics

When John Wallis, professor of geometry at Oxford, wrote A treatise of algebra historical and practical (London 1685) he drew heavily on the De scientiis mathematicis (Amsterdam 1650) of John Gerard Vossius, who had been professor of history at Amsterdam. On one point, however, Wallis disagreed with Vossius. It was the opinion of Vossius that the Hindu-Arabic numerals were unknown in northern Europe before 1250 but Wallis argued carefully and correctly for a much earlier date. In doing so he used a wide range of evidence from a variety of sources, and devised methods and standards which all subsequent historians have followed. He can therefore perhaps be claimed as the first modern historian of mathematics.

Procrastination, incomprehension, misjudgment: the sorry tale of Thomas Harriot's algebra

Thomas Harriot was the finest English mathematician before Newton. He developed far-reaching insights into the structure of polynomial equations, but unfortunately he could not be persuaded to publish his work in his lifetime. After his death his mathematics passed into the hands of editors who failed to do it justice, and the original papers were then lost. John Wallis in 1685 tried to restore Harriot's reputation but in such a xenophobic way that his account was never taken seriously. A careful reading of Wallis's account reveals that he understood Harriot's algebra better than almost anyone but that, influenced by John Pell, he kept his real sources secret. In doing so he did lasting damage to both his own reputation and Harriot's.

Moving the Alps: discovering the mathematics of John Pell

John Pell taught mathematics in Amsterdam and Breda from 1642 to 1649. After his return to England he was highly regarded as a mathematician but published little to justify his reputation, and is perhaps the most enigmatic and under-researched of all the seventeenth-century English mathematicians. Recent examination of his papers has revealed that some of his work did find its way into print in John Wallis's A treatise of algebra, though usually without any mention of Pell's name. This new research raises a number of questions about Pell's contacts in Holland, his strange attitude to publication and the extent of his influence on Wallis.