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A Mathematical mystery tour

Mathematics is one of the most abstract forms of intellectual activity. And yet we use mathematical skills not only when engaging in speculative thought but when trying to solve many practical problems of our daily lives. The development of these skills in early times was closely connected with that of writing. In a word, mathematics forms part of our cultural background and history.

Many of us remember the concentration and application that were necessary when we made our first steps in the world of maths. The same tenacious application, allied to a passion for the subject, is characteristic of advanced students and professional mathematicians.

This issue offers readerseven those for whom the laws of arithmetic have always been a closed booka guided tour of some of the highways and byways of mathematics at different times and places in world history.

The assignment was a challenging one for our specialist contributors who were asked to give a succinct treatment of their subject in straightforward, non-technical terms. Wherever possible they have tried to put the history of mathematics in its social, cultural and even linguistic context.

Is there a common denominator, a single thread of reasoning which runs through all mathematical operations? There are many indications in these pages that this has often been the case. As the Greek philosopher Proclus remarked fifteen hundred years ago, mathematical reasoning is a demonstration of the unity that lies within multiplicity, the indivisible within the divided, and the infinite within the finite.

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November 1989