Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thinking about the foundations of calculus

Just recently, I went through the standard derivation of the fundamental theorem of calculus with my students ..... forming tangent lines to a curve, calculating the gradient of that line using an increment, taking the increment towards infinity than repeating similar arguments for the area under a curve before forming the wonderful conclusion that the mathematics of calculating an area under a curve is the reverse of the process for calculating the gradient of a curve. In short, if you understand the mathematics of change, you also understand the mathematics of accumulation and vice versa. This was the brilliant insight that both Newton and Leibniz claimed as their own in the 17th century and formed the basis of the field we know as "Calculus".

This derivation is rightly considered one of the great mathematical breakthroughs of all time and its conclusions are indeed far reaching. During the lecture, I presented the orthodox view that Newton and Leibniz are the great intellectual heros of this breakthrough with a nod of appreciation to ancient Greeks like Archimedes who developed integral calculus via the method of exhaustion. As I was going through these arguments, I found myself questioning this idea of Newtons and Liebniz's pivotal role in the development of calculus. Wasn't the real breakthrough the idea that if you take an increment and imagine it decreasing towards infinity, you can drive useful geometrical relationships ? Isn't that idea, which I think we can accredit to Archimedes, the real intellectual breakthrough ? If you know that idea and have the tools of Cartesian co-ordinates (thank you Descartes !), than won't the relationships that Newton and Leibniz formed eventually fall out ?

Even as I write these heretical ideas down I feel my inner critic saying "No, these ideas only seem obvious because of the brilliant insights of Newton and Leibniz !" That may be true but historians of mathematics writing on calculus have shown that calculus quickly formed as a field after the developments in algebra instigated by Descartes and other mathematicis just proceeding Newton and Descartes. It is also acknowledged that Barrow (Newton's teacher at Cambridge) had an early form of differential calculus before Newton (see for an excellent overview of his ideas). After consulting my inner critic, I think the view I am forming can be expressed as follows: understanding the importance of taking increments towards zero was a great intellectual breakthrough that allowed the development of calculus, simplifying algebra through the Cartersian co-ordinates provided wonderful tools by which to understand the mathematics of change and accumulation and the derivation of calculus by Newton and Leibniz represent the accumulation of this intellectual development. In short, their intellectual insights owe a great deal to Archimedes, Descartes and Barrow.

One of the interesting observation one can make from these discussions is that the way calculus is taught follows a very different route from its historical development. At high schools, we indoctrinate students in algebra, than introduce differential calculus and limits, and than form integral calculus. In history, calculus was formed in almost the opposite order. I suppose, as long as you understand the key intellectual points underpinning calculus, it doesn't really matter in which order you have learn't them.

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