TWU’s Dr. Glen Van Brummelen on why mathematics is a human adventure, and how pursuing sciences can be a “transformative and joyful experience”
“In many cultures, those who looked up and asked ‘what’s going on, and why?’ were the first to perform the fundamentally devotional activity of finding out how God’s creation really works—in a way, trying to look into the mind of God.”
—Dr. Glen Van Brummelen, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences and Professor of Mathematical Sciences
Here is how Professor of Mathematical Sciences Dr. Glen Van Brummelen would describe his favourite subject, trigonometry, to non-math majors:
“See that circular archway?” he begins.
“How can we find out how long it is from one end to the other?”
“See that star moving in the sky over the course of a night?” he says, giving another example, “How far, and in what direction, did it move compared to its neighbours?”
In practical terms, “Trigonometry is the art of taking visual knowledge about circles and lines, and turning it into numbers that we can use for prediction, surveying, or navigation,” he said.
From passion to profession
With his lifelong passion for scholarship and teaching, Dr. Van Brummelen joined Trinity Western as Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences (FNAS) in 2020.
Recently, the historian of mathematics and astronomy published two books, Trigonometry: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2020) and The Doctrine of Triangles: A History of Modern Trigonometry (Princeton University Press, 2021). Dr. Van Brummelen’s books, plus several of his latest research articles, will be featured at an upcoming TWU Author’s Tea on December 2. The event celebrates recent publications and research by many TWU faculty.
“Mathematics is a human adventure... Real people, ancient astronomers, were wrestling with fundamental questions about the nature of the cosmos in which we find ourselves."
Among many fascinating fields in the math and sciences, Dr. Van Brummelen’s favourite subject is trigonometry, for a couple of reasons.
“Firstly, it’s so much richer than what you learned in high school,” he says. “It was invented to be used for plotting the motions of the stars, and that happens on the surface of the celestial sphere, not the usual flat piece of paper that we’re used to.”
“Spherical trigonometry is so beautiful, it’s breathtaking.”
Secondly, as Dr. Van Brummelen points out, trigonometry is at the heart of so much of science and mathematics.
“Its invention in ancient Greece was the first time that mathematics was used in a substantial way to make a prediction about the natural world (astronomy) from a scientific model. It also has participated in almost every major mathematical revolution of the past several centuries: calculus and infinite series, non-Euclidean geometry, imaginary numbers, the list goes on and on,” he said.
“Spherical trigonometry is so beautiful, it’s breathtaking.”
Math and looking “into the mind of God”
When Dr. Van Brummelen writes and lectures, he often begins the story of trigonometry by going back to ancient philosophers and inventors.
“...It’s one of the greatest pursuits you can follow. It’ll get you a job, of course; people in STEM tend to end up in lucrative careers. But it’s so much more than that. There is so much about God’s creation that we don’t yet know, and there are new things to find around every corner. To explore the workings of creation is to see God at work. It’s a transformative and joyful experience.”
Regarding his fascination with ancient thinkers, he says, “Mathematics is a human adventure, not—as it is so often portrayed—an alien structure forcefully imposed on students.”
“Real people, ancient astronomers, were wrestling with fundamental questions about the nature of the cosmos in which we find ourselves,” he continued.
Dr. Van Brummelen delights in discovering how mathematicians from around the world first thought about the cosmos. “In many cultures, those who looked up and asked ‘what’s going on, and why?’ were the first to perform the fundamentally devotional activity of finding out how God’s creation really works—in a way, trying to look into the mind of God.”
Why math is among life’s “greatest pursuits”
For anyone thinking about pursuing math or sciences, Dr. Van Brummelen has these words of encouragement.
“DO IT. It’s one of the greatest pursuits you can follow. It’ll get you a job, of course; people in STEM tend to end up in lucrative careers. But it’s so much more than that,” he said.
“There is so much about God’s creation that we don’t yet know, and there are new things to find around every corner. To explore the workings of creation is to see God at work. It’s a transformative and joyful experience.”
Alongside inspiring students at TWU and providing leadership to FNAS, Dr. Van Brummelen is currently pursuing two challenging research projects.
“The first is on 15th century Italian Giovanni Bianchini, whose astronomical work gave us the decimal point and the tangent function, among other inventions.” As Dr. Van Brummelen notes, “He was one of the very first creative scientists who gave birth to interests that led to the scientific Renaissance.”
Secondly, he is partnering with two colleagues (mathematics historians, Kim Plofker from the U.S. and Clemency Montelle from New Zealand) on a Sanskrit text from 17th-century Jaipur, India, “part of a time that borrowed mathematics and astronomy from several different cultures—medieval Islam, early modern Europe, and its own explorations—and combined them into a single new science,” he explains.
This work uncovers a significant chapter of scientific history. “The text we’re working on is one of the few pieces of evidence left of a transformation of trigonometry from 15th-century Samarqand, Uzbekistan that introduced algebra into trigonometry.”
About Glen Van Brummelen
Dr. Glen Van Brummelen is Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at TWU. He has taught mathematics at the university level for over 30 years, and has won several notable awards for outstanding teaching, including the 3M National Teaching Fellowship (2017), the Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching (2016), and the Pacific Northwest Mathematical Association of America Distinguished Teaching Award (2015). Additionally, he has held fellowships at a number of institutions from around the world, including the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ), the Bavarian Academy of Sciences (Ptolemaeus Arabus et Latinus), the University of Canterbury (Christchurch, NZ), the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), and Caltech (Pasadena, CA). He is author of The Mathematics of the Heavens and the Earth: The Early History of Trigonometry (Princeton, 2009), Heavenly Mathematics: The Forgotten Art of Spherical Trigonometry (Princeton, 2013), Trigonometry: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2020) and The Doctrine of Triangles: A History of Modern Trigonometry (Princeton University Press, 2021). Prior to coming to TWU, Dr. Van Brummelen served twice as president of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics.
About the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences
The Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences offers exceptional and rigorous educational experiences, both in the classroom and the lab. To learn more about studying math and sciences at TWU, including program options in biology, computing science and pre-professional tracks in pre-dentistry, pre-medicine, and pre-pharmacy—visit TWU’s Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences.
See also—CCCU and Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford awards TWU $230,000 to advance STEM research:
About Trinity Western University
Founded in 1962, Trinity Western University is Canada’s premier Christian liberal arts university dedicated to equipping students to establish meaningful connections between career, life, and the needs of the world. It is a fully accredited research institution offering liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional schools in business, nursing, education, human kinetics, graduate studies, and arts, media, and culture. It has four campuses and locations: Langley, Richmond-Lansdowne, Richmond-Minoru, and Ottawa. TWU emphasizes academic excellence, research, and student engagement in a vital faith community committed to forming leaders to have a transformational impact on culture. Learn more at www.twu.ca or follow us on Twitter @TrinityWestern, on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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