Call for submissions: Examples of unplanned impact of mathematics from history

Scientific research is increasingly judged according to its impact. This policy faces difficulties in assessing pure mathematics research proposals, the impact of which can be very difficult to foresee and which may come decades or even centuries after the original discovery.

The field of topology is an illustrative example. Started by Euler and studied for 250 years as a purely theoretical discipline before, in the last two decades, finding applications as diverse - and alien to Euler - as DNA, galaxy formation and robotics. These applications rely on the 250 years of pure research, but those advances would not have been made if the researchers had to justify the planned impact before studying their mathematics.

In technology, quaternions, a 19th century discovery which seemed to have no practical value, has turned out to be invaluable to the 21st century computer games industry, while work on the best way to stack oranges started by Kepler in 1611 is essential to modern telecommunications.

Einstein's theory of relativity, which seemed to come as a spark of genius from nowhere, nevertheless drew on abstract geometry developed half a century earlier. Fourier's theory of vibrating strings, via very abstract mathematics in the 20th century, has now yielded new insights into quantum physics.

Gambling on 16th century dice games led to a discovery in mathematical probability that is crucial to the insurance industry, while a recent insight into a quantum theory thought experiment has unexpectedly found applications in the outbreak of viral disease and the risks associated with stock market volatility.

These seven examples of mathematics with impact the original discoverer could not have planned have been collected by a group of mathematicians from the British Society for the History of Mathematics and are reported in the 14th July issue of the journal Nature and its accompanying podcast.

We hope this collection will only be the start and that more mathematicians will send their favourite stories to us. These could be examples of historical mathematics that has an unexpected impact on the modern world and those for which the impact is historical as well. These could be examples of curiosity-driven mathematics that later had an impact as well as work intended for one purpose that happened to have a different, unplanned impact.

If you are willing to help with this initiative, please send me an email briefly describing an idea that could be worked into a 400-word piece.

Peter Rowlett, 14 July 2011
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The British Society for the History of Mathematics is registered as a company limited by guarantee, no. 3326816, and as a charity, no. 1061229. Its registered office is c/o Andrew Thurburn & Co, 38 Tamworth Road, Croydon, Surrey CR0 1XU, UK.