Ethnomathematics! Doesn’t the very term conjure up visions of politically correct wallahs (and walis) trying to prove, in a postmodern way, that “all cultures are equal”?

True, previous generations of math historians had tended to be unjustifiably Eurocentric, though the really great ones, like the Swiss-American Florian Cajori (1859 - 1930) were certainly not so. But to me there are two great benefits to be gained from the study of the maths of the East.

Firstly, the achievements of China, India and the Middle East give the lie to any postmodern assertion (if that’s not an oxymoron) that mathematics is a culture-dependent thing without any fundamental underlying reality.

Secondly, the ways the Eastern mathematicians did certain things may be more palatable and easy to grasp than, say, the Ancient Greek way. For instance, the method that the 3rd Century Chinese Mathematician Liu Hui uses to derive the volume of a pyramid is, to my mind, somewhat easier to grasp than the similar method used by the Greeks and which a 17th century mathematician named the Method of Exhaustion.

Recently, there has appeared on BBC4 Television a series by the Oxford Professor Marcus du Sautoy entitled “The Story of Maths”. So far there have been three episodes, which you can watch on the BBC iPlayer (instructions for use here). The first episode (The Language of the Universe) dealt with Egypt, Babylonia, and Greece, and here is a link to the second episode The Genius of the East (you can track down the other episodes from this one.)

The third episode (and most recent so far) entitled The Frontiers of Space has been most entertaining and informative. I do highly recommend this series, whether you are completely new to the subject or like myself up to your ears in it. One small caveat, though. When coming to European mathematics, he distances himself from the Christian faith of some of its practitioners, and really wants us to know he doesn’t believe in God. It is written (says he, putting on his 3000-year old turban)

Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench;
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.

but in spite of this nasty ’niff I would still most highly recommend this series, which has one more episode to go.