Mathematicians won the war

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Wednesday 9 Oct 2019

Egypt’s illustrious history in mathematics is one that should be revived, for this science of the sciences is the true key to strategic and national development

The political role of mathematics is growing by the day. Mathematicians are arguably the most important scientific elite in contemporary international politics.

Nuclear weapons and conventional weapons wouldn’t have been launched without mathematics. Missile and submarine systems, along with aerial and naval weapons, are indebted to mathematics. If not for mathematics, contemporary wars would have been fought with Middle Ages arms.

The screenwriter of the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, which narrated the life of eminent mathematician, physicist and Nobel laureate in economics John Nash, was right when he chose to begin the film with the decisive sentence: “Mathematicians won the war.”

John Nash was one of the great mathematicians, but suffered from mental disorders, seeing and speaking to non-existent persons. His behaviour looked like utter madness among his colleagues and those surrounding him. Dr Ahmed Zuwail told me part of his meeting with Nash and what he heard about him and what he heard from him. He was an astonishing blend of mind and unmindfulness, knowledge and disturbance, imbalance and brilliance.

Mathematics is a difficult and unattractive science and doesn’t appeal to students. It is also an accumulative science. If its foundations aren’t instilled in the mind correctly, it would be extremely difficult to achieve progress afterwards. It must be taught with care and excellence from the beginning.

Fear of mathematics isn’t confined only to Egyptian students but encompasses students worldwide, and continues for years. Some psychologists have published research about the "fear of maths" and “fear of statistics." According to a study conducted by Kansas University, 80 percent of university students suffer from anxiety related to mathematics. This drove

Dr Michael Vitevitch, head of the Psychology Department at Kansas University, to study ways of overcoming “mathematics anxiety” after setting up an indicator to measure this kind of anxiety.

Mathematics is an integral component of national security and overcoming “mathematics anxiety” a political issue. International competition in mathematics has become an essential part of strategic conflict. When Iran attained noticeable progress in the field of mathematics, the Israeli education minister announced that the decline of mathematics in Israel in comparison posed a threat that couldn't be tolerated. It was declared that “Mathematics is part of national security."

The minister said: “The students’ grasping of mathematics is the most important strategic objective of the ministry." Following this statement, the Israeli government established the “Mathematics Council.”

Russia has made significant advances in mathematics in order to confront the scientific revolution in rival America. Russian officials were quoted as saying: “Developing mathematics is a main political objective. Mathematics will allow Russia to achieve its strategic objectives and occupy pioneering posts in weaponry and economics.”

Washington perceived early on the central role of mathematics in contemporary civilisation, understanding that the advancement of mathematics must start first in schools before universities.

Advanced weapons used in World War I was what drew attention to the importance of mathematics in war. In 1920, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) was founded.

Nowadays, it is the largest organisation in the world for teaching mathematics. The council publishes four newspapers and holds annual conferences for American mathematics teachers. The newspapers cover the curriculum of all school stages and are considered a main source of mathematical knowledge.

In 1944, the NCTM was the authority that set up the plan for the post-World War II period so as to maintain the development of mathematics in view of the role that algebra played in helping the American army during the war.

The rise of the science of mathematics and the publication of specialised newspapers in the field helped spur an effort to make simplified mathematics books more attractive. In this context, noteworthy are the books written by Peter Higgins, such as “Numbers: A Very Short Introduction” and “Mathematics for the Curious."

International newspapers began to devote large printing space to stars in mathematics who received scientific awards, the most prominent of which are the Abel Award and Fields Medal, both of which are equal to the Nobel Prize.

The Abel Award is given by the Norwegian Mathematics Society. The most prominent institutions of which its scientists won this award include the Collège de France, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences and Princeton University. The prestigious Fields Medal is given by the International Mathematical Union every four years.

In Egypt, the Mathematics Department was founded at Cairo University in 1925 only five years after the establishment of the NCTM. The first department head was the renowned scientist Moustafa Mosharafa. The academic staff of the department included Sydney Chapman, Paul Montel, Maurice Frechet, Max Born and Jean-Louis Lions. As for Dr Mosharafa, he was the most illustrious within the Egyptian elite in this department which had an international nature and was long superior to its counterparts in esteemed European universities.

Teaching mathematics in Egyptian schools was also distinguished. From Victoria College in Alexandria, Michael Atiyah, the most eminent mathematician of Arab descent, graduated. Atiyah went on to receive both the Abel Award and Fields Medal, receiving his scientific foundation first in Egyptian schools then from British universities.

Mathematics is the science by which other sciences are more controlled. Egypt was a pioneer in this field. For in Alexandria, Euclid, the Egyptian of Greek descent, wrote The Elements, the most famous book in mathematics.

Egypt needs to regain its glory in mathematics, eliminate “mathematics anxiety," establish its own National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and launch the Mathematicians’ Club and the Egyptian Society of Mathematics.

From mathematics the Egyptian civilisational project starts. Science is the solution.

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