Notes & Queries

Wednesday 20 September 2006 at 9:11 pm | In Articles | 3 Comments

Each week the Guardian newspaper runs a Notes & Queries column where readers answer other readers’ questions. It’s been going for 15 years and often has fascinating questions and answers. I had one of my replies printed (about the VideoPlus system for numbering television programmes). It was born long before online forums became popular and spawned a number of books.

Today a question has been asked which totally astonishes me. I can’t think what the questioner thinks about mathematics.

    Gravity existed before Newton discovered it. Did mathematics exist before the first mathematician evolved?

I don’t believe it is a sophisticated question about whether mathematics is invented or discovered.

If you want to answer the question, and maybe see it published, then email your (short) answer to the column at

Added 27th September: In the answers given to this question (not as far as I know available online) one contributor recommends reading Conversations on Mind, Matter and Mathematics where J.-P. Changeux and Alain Connes debate questions like

    Do numbers and the other objects of mathematics enjoy a timeless existence independent of human minds, or are they the products of cerebral invention? Do we discover them, as Plato supposed and many others have believed since, or do we construct them?


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  1. Hi Steve,

    I also saw the question in the G2, I just figured it was a clumsy was of saying “is mathematics discovered or invented”, which, as far as I know, is a thorny problem that philosophers have wrestled with for a long time, so it might make for quite an argument!

    Comment by Craig — Friday 22 September 2006 8:16 am #

  2. The question about discovery vs invention is useful when trying to explain what mathematics is all about to the layman ie that there is such a question.

    However, when doing research I always felt it was “there”, usually just over the hill and if I only made enough effort I could see it. But that’s only a human reaction based on experience of trying to understand mathematics in papers, on the board in books etc. It was a useful feeling because it meant you felt you were on the right track so wouldn’t give up.

    Comment by Steve — Friday 22 September 2006 12:41 pm #

  3. Hmm, that’s a good point. It’ll be interesting to see what everyone else comes up with. I remember the arguments over the number of sudoku arrangements went on for a quite a while, and that actually has a definite answer, unlike this sort of question…

    Comment by Craig — Friday 22 September 2006 7:49 pm #

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