Meeting a New Teacher: Gerbert of Aurillac

The other day, I met a woman who’s doing her shadowing today.  She was visiting my school, and observing classes, as preparation for becoming one of our regular substitute teachers.  I was reasonably impressed with her; she seemed competent, earnest and genuinely interested in advancing learning.

We talked about Vi Hart, and it turned out this new teacher had done some of her mathematics study on knot topology, and so I pulled out some books about Celtic knot work, and her eyes lit up.  Then I pulled out The Abacus and the Cross by Nancy Marie Brown, and it became clear that the education of this person in math had maybe not learned much about the history of math.  It was a little startling. Maybe a little dismaying.

As Stephen Downes knows, I’m not particularly good at math, but I like to think I do have a bit of a handle on the history of mathematics.  Is that actually taught as part of the discipline of mathematics any more?  Is there any effort to keep alive the stories of the mathematicians who invent various crazy solutions to the way that various problems work?  Is there any general love given to Gerbert of Aurillac, who introduced the concept of Arabic numerals to the western world?

No, he’s not a(n official) saint.  In fact, Gerbert later became Pope Sylvester II, who is still widely regarded as the magician-pope and possibly in league with the devil.  I don’t know if he has a feast day or not, but it seems to me that it’s worth celebrating, since he was almost certainly one of the great teachers of all time; how many can lay claim to the concept, “well, I simplified addition and subtraction for Westerns to the point where they could invent division and multiplication.”?  THAT’S impressive.

Hail, thoughtful Gerbert, later Sylvester,
who wandered from Aurillac down to Spain:
of maths, and the Church, you’re double Father.
your abacus brought end to Roman pain,
and calculi rolling on chequered banc.
If one writes 2  0 when “twenty”‘s meant,
It’s fairly certain ’tis you we should thank,
even if others thought you demon-sent.
You taught geometry through doodles wise;
and learned the astrolabe among the Moors.
It’s claimed that gears and cogs you could devise,
and your counsel opened knowledge’s doors.
Help me, Gerbert, to learn by insights sweet,
numeric arts that God laid at your feet.

There you are… a kind of mathemagician’s prayer.  Enjoy!

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