Two years ago, the Jefferson Market Library became the first NYPL branch to offer free college-level courses taught by university professors and graduate students. We are really excited about our next three-session course starting June 7: The Cultural Life of Numbers. For this month’s column, we asked the professor Jennifer Egloff, a PhD Candidate in New York University’s Atlantic History program, to talk about what the class will cover. Here’s what she had to say:
In this hands-on course, I will present some of my original research, which focuses on the ways that individuals used numbers throughout history, and the cultural meanings that they ascribed to them. While no background in mathematics or history is required in order to take this course, I combine my undergraduate training in Mathematics with my graduate training in History to offer insights into the anthropological, philosophical, and practical uses of numbers, and the development of mathematical ideas, over the course of human history, while challenging students to think like historians by developing their own analyses of historical documents and artifacts.
The interdisciplinary nature of this course reflects my own research and an ongoing trend in contemporary scholarship toward conversation and collaboration across disciplines. Scholars have made many interdisciplinary inroads between various branches of the humanities in recent years, such as when historians adopt the methods of literary scholars, and literary scholars increasingly situate their studies within the relevant historical context. Recently there have been concerted efforts to encourage interdisciplinarity between the humanities and the sciences. It is interesting to note that the divisions between disciplines are relatively recently constructions, and that in the past knowledge was considerably more fluid.
My course, “Cultural Life of Numbers” demonstrates this knowledge fluidity in numerous ways. For instance, many of us may think of Pythagoras merely as a mathematician who lent his name to a very practical triangular theorem that we learned in our high school geometry courses (a2 + b2 = c2). However, the historical Pythagoras was a multifaceted man who founded an academy that was concerned with philosophy and number mysticism, as well as solving practical mathematical problems. These seemingly oppositional areas of knowledge, including numerology and trigonometry, have had profound effects on medieval and early modern Europe, early America, and continue to influence the world today.
After establishing roots in the ancient Greek past, and exploring how those ideas were transmitted to medieval and Renaissance Europe, this course explores the lived experiences of individuals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean between 1500-1800, as they made choices about whether to utilize newly introduced numerical methods and mathematical techniques in attempts to take control of various aspects of their lives, including their professions, valuation of their property, navigating the vicissitudes of nature, managing their households, organizing their personal lives, and contemplating their eternal salvation. Dynamic and interactive, this course will doubtlessly foster lively discussions throughout. Hope to see you there!
To find out more about this course and other programs at the Jefferson Market Library, visit http://www.nypl.org/locations/jefferson-market .