Remember that the first due date relating to your paper is
- Madame de Châtelet: find out more about Émilie
de Châtelet, her mathematics, and her influence. How
influential was she? Did she ever do any original work in physics or
A possible starting point is the article "Émilie du
Châtelet and the Gendering of Science", by Mary Terrall,
History of Science, 33 (1995), 283-310.
- Smallpox innoculation was very controversial in
eighteenth-century France, and at least part of the controversy was
put in mathematical terms: what is the real advantage of
innoculation? Can one determine the probability that it will improve
one's life expectancy? Do I benefit personally from an increase in
the life expectancy of the overall population?
Both Daniel Bernoulli and D'Alembert wrote about this problem. I
have a copy of (a translation of) their papers. Reading those isn't
really easy, but would be the right place to start. There's more on
the topic in Hankins and in Daston's Classical Probability in the
- Maupertuis and the shape of the Earth: we spent a class
session discussing this one, but there's clearly a lot more to
say. Exactly what did the expeditions measure? If the Earth is
flattened, do we expect a degree of longitude near the pole to be
longer or shorter than at the equator? And what about the seconds
pendulum: what does that have to do with it?
Possible starting points: there are two papers one could start
from. One is by J. L. Greenberg and appeared in Archive for the
History of the Exact Sciences (not in the library, but I have a
copy of the paper). The other is by R. Iliffe, and appeared in
History of Science in 1993 (this one is in the library). We
also have Greenberg's book on the problem.
- A great textbook and its influence: Euler's Elements of
Algebra was an immensely influential textbook. What is in the
book? Does it read like a modern algebra text? Can one still find
traces of its influence in modern textbooks?
The library has a copy of Euler's book (translated into English),
and one would start by looking at its table of contents and reading
a well-chosen section. Then one could go on to compare that section
with a related section in more recent books.
- The Ladies Diary: the short article we read had more
questions in it than answers. Find out more about The Ladies
Diary. Who read it? What was in it? Why did the male readers
"take it over" at the end of the eighteenth century?
A possible starting point is the article "Female Philomaths", by
Ruth and Peter Wallis, Historia Mathematica, 7(1980), pages
57-64. The Colby library has this journal (in Miller Library).
- Montucla's History of Mathematics: one of the treasures in
Colby's Special Collections is a copy of the first modern attempt at
writing a history of mathematics, by Jean E. Montucla. The copy we
have is the second edition, with additions by J. de Lalande, which
was published in 1799. Two possible projects suggest themselves: one
could write about the book itself (what is in it, was it
influential, how does it fit in the history of histories of
science), or one could choose a topic and compare what Montucla and
Lalande say with what a modern history says. In the latter case, the
best would be to stick with one of "our" topics (e.g., the notion of
a differential, probability, number theory, Newtonian mechanics).
- Hutton's Dictionary: another treasure we own is a copy of the
Philosophical and Mathematical Dictionary, by Charles
Hutton. The edition we have is from 1815. It might be interesting to
take one of "our" topics and see how Hutton perceived it at the
beginning of the nineteenth century.
- Monge and Descriptive Geometry: there are lots of topics we
won't get to talk about in class, and Gaspard Monge and his
"Descriptive Geometry" is one of them. But there's lots to say about
both the man and the mathematics. Monge was one of the most
political of the late eighteenth century mathematicians, so this
would have lots of connections to the French Revolution material
A possible starting point would be an old essay be D. E. Smith on
"Gaspard Monge, politician", that you can find in a book called
The Poetry of Mathematics and other essays (in the Colby
library). Of course, since this is essay is over half a century old,
you'll want to look at other sources too.
- Saccheri and the parallel postulate: another topic we won't
really get to is the work on Euclid's "fifth postulate". This became
a hot topic in the nineteenth century, but Girolamo Saccheri's book
Euclides Vindicatus (the title is sometimes given as "Euclid
Freed From Every Flaw"), which first appeared in 1733, is an
important milestone in the history of geometry. Explaining the goals
and the achievements of Saccheri would make a great term paper.
Our library has an English edition of Saccheri, and the controversy
over the parallel postulate is discussed in pretty much every book
on the history of mathematics, so there's lots of material to work
with. There's also other mathematicians who worked on this problem,
notably Lambert and Legendre; you can find extracts from their work
in the Fauvel-Gray sourcebook.