PaperHive Conversations: Karine Chemla

Photo: Institute for the History of Natural Science Chinese Academy of Sciences

Dr. Karine Chemla, one of the plenary speakers during the 7ECM in Berlin, is a historian of mathematics from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Scientific Research National Center, in France. Her main studies include 19th century French geometry, the theory of the history of mathematics and mathematics in China.

During the 7th European Congress of Mathematics, Dr. Chemla hosted a plenary talk called How has one approached, and how could one approach the diversity of mathematical cultures? about history of mathematics.

We approached Dr. Chemla during the Congress with questions about her research and the 7ECM.

How would you explain the broader significance of your research
to other colleagues focused on a completely different field?

The part of my research I presented at the ECM deals with the history (and present state) of ways of doing mathematics. Which material environments and which types of writings did various collectives of mathematicians shape to do research? Which types of answer are there interested in? Which epistemological values are important for them? I am interested in these questions in general, and I think these issues are important to understanding mathematical activity at the present day. In case these questions can lead to cooperation between mathematicians and historians of mathematics to think together, that would be great!

What are the big issues in your research area now?
Where should the researchers from your area concentrate more efforts?

Mathematical practices are at the center of much research at the present day in the history and philosophy of mathematics. Different historians of mathematics understand practices in different ways, and they also understand the importance of dealing with practices in different ways. How to describe practices, and how do practices correlate with the concepts, results and theories produced? I think these are issues on which researchers could concentrate. Choosing general issues is important for me to maintain a certain cohesion in the history of mathematics.

Were there any surprises you came across during the research process?

Sure! Recently I had a wonderful surprise when discovering a connection in terms of practice between the 13th-century approach to the “Chinese remainder theorem” that developed in China, and ancient algorithms for multiplication and division. Discovering that a practice of inquiring into the relationship between operations had been central for practitioners of mathematics from the 1st century to at least the 13th century was wholly unexpected, and most enjoyable.

What do you expect from this 7ECM in particular and for the future?

I expect to learn about new ideas that are being developed in many fields different from mine, and I also expect to go on observing ways of doing mathematics. This is important to inspire my own research on the diversity of ways of doing mathematics and why this matters for the history and philosophy of mathematics.

PaperHive would like to ask you: If the reader had only 5 minutes,
what specific pages or sections should they definitely read to gain insight into your research?

I think “Une figure peut en cacher une autre” is simple, and yet illustrates the diversity of ways of doing mathematics with figures that can be evidenced if we look at different mathematical cultures. If the French language is too repelling, then the reader may try something totally different that just appeared and illustrates my main general concerns: “Reading The History Manifesto as a Historian of Mathematics in Ancient China“.

About the Author

Manuel Bláuab
Editor-in-Chief Manuel Bláuab is a journalist and writer from Argentina. Has worked in radio, newspapers, theater and online publications since early 2000's.