Emeritus Professor John Webb, Department of Mathematics, University of Cape Town

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Isaac Newton

Our lives are ruled by numbers: spoken, written and manipulated. This course will ask how number sense can be distinguished from nonsense. Pythagoras was baffled by the irrational, Euclid was defeated by trisection. Isaac Newton was thwarted by the infinitesimal. Bertrand Russell was exhausted by logic. Hilbert was stopped by the unprovable. How did maths survive these crises? The history of mathematics is studded with legends of doubtful provenance, from Archimedes in his bath to Newton’s apple and the non-existent Nobel Prize for mathematics. This three-lecture course engages with the sometimes baffling history of the maths we could not do without.



1. 666 and all that

2. Tipping points

3. Anecdotage 


Recommended reading

Barrow, J.D. 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know. Bodley Head.

Dehaene, S. 1997. The Number Sense. Allen Lane.

Ifrah, G. 1994. The Universal History of Numbers. John Wiley.

Pickover, C.A. The Math Book. Sterling.


Date: Monday 15–Wednesday 17 January   Venue: LT1, Kramer Law Building
Time: 3.30 pm
COURSE  FEES Full: R310,00  Staff: R155,00  Reduced: R80,00