Evaluating the Quality of History of Mathematics Web Pages

The World Wide Web is fast becoming a standard research tool for use in class. It is especially useful in courses dealing with the history of mathematics, for you can quickly find information about a great number of individuals and topics. The questions, however, is: How reliable is the information on the WWW? Our purpose here is to instill a healthy skepticism in your mind about what you read on the web.

How do you evaluate what you read on the web? I suggest that you be very skeptical of everything you read there. The purposes of these exercises is to take a look at a few pages that contain errors and to recognize them. Hopefully this will help you develop the skills to recognize errors elsewhere. Let me be bold and make a

Big Claim: The ability to critically judge what you hear and read is a necessary skill in a democratic society.

Your responses to the following questions will be discussed in class. Please identify any message you are referring to by URL (Universal Resource Locator) and give the name of the author and date posted so that we can all easily look at the messages you are talking about. Be sure to explain what errors you think the web pages contain as well as your reasons for your views. The aim of this set of exercises is to spark discussion of some of the problems that you will encounter when using the internet to do historical research.

Exercise 1

The following webpages deal with Maria Gaetana Agnesi either in whole or in part (in some cases you may have to scroll to get to the entry on Agnesi). Some of these are student papers and others are more professionally produced. As you look at these sites, consider discrepancies in the information you find there. In particular, consider these questions to see if there is agreement at the different sites:
  1. How many children were in the Agnesi household?
  2. What was Maria's father's occupation?
  3. How many languages did Maria speak and at what age?
  4. How old was Maria when her book Instituzioni Analitche was published?
  5. What contribution did she make concerning the curve that is named after her?
  6. Were there any other famous Agnesi children?
  7. How did the "Witch of Agnesi" get its name?

Here are the webpages to look at:

  1. Site 1
  2. Site 2
  3. Site 3
  4. Site 4
  5. Site 5
  6. Site 6
  7. Site 7
  8. Site 8

Exercise 2

Look at the page on Euclid Who is pictured on this page?

Exercise 3

Did you know that the catenary had an asymptote? What do you think caused this error?

Exercise 4

There is an email list on the history of mathematics called math-history-list. Take a look the recent postings for 2009 and see what you can learn. This list is moderated, meaning that there is an owner of the list who "filters" the posts.
  1. Are there postings that you find particularly interesting and informative?
  2. Postings that are quite scholarly?
  3. Are there postings which are not well thought out?
  4. Are there postings that are "off-topic," i.e., that have nothing to do with the history of mathematics?
  5. Do you find instances of inappropriate behavior on the part of the poster?
  6. Are there postings by "cranks" or "nuts"?

Exercise 5

Mail groups can be notorious for the postings that appear. Flame wars erupt periodically and the participants frequently return to the same old issues. This is definitely true for sci.math which attracts many individuals with a casual interest in mathematics. This mail group is not moderated.

One rather infamous poster to this mail group is Archimedes Plutonium. One can find out more about him from the Wikipedia entry for him. Check the footnoted articles for a few more words on this individual.

Exercise 6

Now that I have pointed you to a few inaccurate web pages, it is time for you to do some browsing on your own and to find some pages that you think are wrong (don't take things off the mail groups; that's too easy). In each case you should give the URL, indicate the error, and state your reasons and source for concluding that you found an error. Hopefully we can generate a nice discussion about this.

After posting the above exercises, I told a few historians about them. They suggested the following:

Exercise 7

There are some new results from Euclid that we ought to take a look at. What do you think?