Thursday, July 14, 2011

The unplanned impact of mathematics (Nature)

Peter Rowlett has assembled, with some other historians of mathematics, seven accessible examples of how theoretical work in mathematics led to unexpected practical applications. His discussion seems to be primarily motivated by the recent emphasis on the "impact" of research, both in Britain and in the US:
There is no way to guarantee in advance what pure mathematics will later find application. We can only let the process of curiosity and abstraction take place, let mathematicians obsessively take results to their logical extremes, leaving relevance far behind, and wait to see which topics turn out to be extremely useful. If not, when the challenges of the future arrive, we won't have the right piece of seemingly pointless mathematics to hand.
For philosophers, the most important example to keep in mind, I think, is the last one, offered by Chris Linton: the role of Fourier series in promoting the later "rigorization" of math:
In the 1870s, Georg Cantor's first steps towards an abstract theory of sets came about through analysing how two functions with the same Fourier series could differ.
Rowlett has a call for more examples on the BSHM website. Hopefully this will convince some funding agencies that immediate impact is not a fair standard!