Obituary: David Fowler ; Historian of Ancient Mathematics

By Steve Russ, Eleanor Robson, Rona Epstein and David Epstein | The Independent (London, England), May 24, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: David Fowler ; Historian of Ancient Mathematics


Steve Russ, Eleanor Robson, Rona Epstein and David Epstein, The Independent (London, England)


AS THE first Manager of the Mathematics Research Centre at Warwick University, from 1967, David Fowler played an important part in establishing, through the research symposia organised at the centre, the outstanding international reputation that Warwick now enjoys in many branches of mathematics. As a distinguished scholar of the history of mathematics he has left a wonderful legacy in the form of a series of papers and books presenting, in rich detail, a far-reaching, original and inventive re-interpretation of early Greek mathematics.

While at Rossall School near Fleetwood, Lancashire, in the early 1950s he was taught and influenced by a particularly dedicated mathematics master, R.K. Melluish. He decided to read that subject at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he also went on to do research in analysis. Fowler's first academic post was as Lecturer in Mathematics at Manchester University, from 1961 to 1967.

In 1967, he began lecturing in analysis at Warwick, having been invited there by (Sir) Christopher Zeeman, his former tutor at Cambridge. Zeeman was then setting up the Mathematics Institute at the newly established university and Fowler was appointed to manage the Mathematics Research Centre.

Fowler brought many special and unusual abilities to the task. His great interest in people, and in mathematics, and his mastery of many practical issues in the maintenance of good living conditions, enabled him to provide, with colleagues, conditions under which distinguished visitors created much new mathematics and proved many new theorems. As a result, there were, in almost every year during Fowler's first 25 years at Warwick, more mathematicians visiting the university's Mathematics Department than there were mathematical visitors to all other English universities combined - a remarkable record for a new university.

In the midst of so much administrative activity, and interaction with leading scholars, Fowler did not neglect the students. He formed good relationships with his many undergraduate tutees, some of whom became lifelong friends. He was an outstanding teacher, concentrating on helping students to think things out for themselves instead of just listening to a lecturer. He pioneered different ways of university teaching long before such experimentation became fashionable, encouraging students to learn mathematics by doing: by solving problems and by sharing work.

Not so long ago, a mathematician was sent a book to review. It was a dense and learned tome on ancient Greek mathematics that he was about to return when he noticed the price. Intrigued that a book could be both so incomprehensible and so expensive, he took it home out of sheer curiosity and ended up becoming a historian of Greek mathematics himself. The year was 1975, the book Wilbur Knorr's The Evolution of the Euclidean Elements, and the mathematician David Fowler. This was the story he liked to tell of his origins as a historian, although ironically the whole of his subsequent career was spent in refuting the accepted story of the origins of Greek mathematics and arguing, very engagingly and persuasively, for another one.

Here, first, is the standard account. In fifth-century Athens, Greek mathematics was all about numbers, just like mathematics in other ancient cultures. Then the Greeks discovered incommensurability: that some ratios of lengths or areas could not be expressed in terms of whole numbers. An example, discovered by the Greeks, is the square root of 2, equal to 1.414213562373095... . This caused such a shock to the Greek mathematicians that they abandoned numbers altogether and instead invented the Euclidean geometrical tradition that describes and explores only the properties and relationships of mathematical objects, not their numerical values.

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