Sylvia Nickerson, B.F.A., B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), University of Toronto
Sessional Lecturer, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, McMaster University
Content Editor, Bulletin of the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Mathematics
I’m a historian of mathematics and science. This page is dedicated to my academic work. I also work as a professional artist. My artistic work can be found here at http://www.sylvianickerson.ca/. We can understand many things using mathematics. I enjoy going back to discover how people came to know tools and concepts we take for granted as canonical in mathematics. But some experiences we cannot understand with mathematics. Emotional states, narratives and identities are themes I explore in my artistic work.
My research explores mathematics and science as forms of creative literature. I examine how mathematics and our perceptions about it are shaped by cultural imagination and material process in the same ways other written literatures have been. My interest in the history of mathematics reflects my personal connection to the field as a history of creative thought.
ARTICLES & BOOK CHAPTERS
(forthcoming) “Marrying the radical, the conventional, and the mystical: Mathematics, gender and religion in the lives of William Kingdon and Lucy Lane Clifford,” in special issue of Endeavour on the theme of Calculating Couples: Domesticity and Gender in the Making of Mathematical Careers, ed. David E. Dunning and Brigitte Stenhouse.
(2020) with Bernard Lightman and Parandis Tajbakhsh, “From Conflict to Complexity: Historians and Nineteenth Century Public Perceptions of Science and Religion”, in Identity in a Secular Age: Science, Religion and Public Perceptions, ed. Fern Elsdon-Baker and Bernard Lightman, University of Pittsburgh Press, p. 13-29.
(2019) “Darwin’s Publisher: John Murray III at the intersection of science and religion” in Rethinking History, Science and Religion: An Exploration of Conflict and the Complexity Principle, ed. Bernard Lightman, University of Pittsburgh Press, p. 110-128.
(2015) “Mathematics for the World: Publishing Mathematics and the International Book Trade, Macmillan and Co.” chapter nine in Research in History and Philosophy of Mathematics, Proceedings of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics, Maria Zack and Elaine Landry (eds), New York: Birkhäuser, p. 121-137.
(2013) “Referees, Publisher’s Readers and the Image of Mathematics in Nineteenth Century England”, winner of the Peter Isaac Essay Prize, Publishing History 71: 27-67.
(2013) “Taking a Stand: Exploring the role of the scientist prior to the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, 1957”, Scientia Canadensis 36: 63-87.
(2008) “Russell, Clifford, Whitehead and Differential Geometry” with Nicholas Griffin, Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies n.s. 28: 20-38.
(2023) W.K. Clifford's Philosophical areligion informs his Algebra and Geometry (invited), Special Sessions on the History of Mathematics, Joint Mathematics Meetings of the American Mathematical Society and Mathematical Association of America, Boston
(2022) Calculating Couples: W.K. and Lucy Clifford (invited), School of Mathematics and Statistics, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
Science journalist Dan Falk wrote about my research into John Murray III, the man who published Origin of Species as well as many of Darwin’s other works. One might assume Murray was a naturalist looking to displace natural theology as the dominant worldview, but I contend this was not the case. “Darwin’s publisher didn’t believe in evolution, but sold his revolutionary book anyway” by Dan Falk, Smithsonian Magazine, February 12, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-darwins-publisher-changed-worlddespite-his-own-objections-180974189/. An amateur geologist himself, Murray wrote a very interesting anonymous book under the pseudonym “Verifier”, the title being Skepticism in Geology and the Reasons for It. In this book he argued that so-called “modern causes” (those justifying Lyell’s uniformitarian view of geology, for instance) have no validity. He did not embrace the modern scientific worldview, and in fact, worked against the public adoption of this worldview in his publication ventures.
(2020-current) Editor, Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics Bulletin. Responsible for writing, collecting and assembling member and society news, editorials and event listings pertaining to history of mathematics for this biannual publication. Are you interested in contributing an editorial, book review or other column to the Bulletin? Please contact me at s.nickerson at utoronto.ca!
(2014-2017) Editorial Assistant, The Correspondence of John Tyndall (University of Pittsburgh Press). Among the 7000 letters published in this multi-volume, multi-year editorial project, I transcribed and edited more than 400. Attending bi-weekly editorial team meetings, I helped shape the project’s digital strategy, managed research assistants, wrote scripts about the Tyndall project and edited images for vols. 2-5. John Tyndall was an English experimental physicist, scientific naturalist, public figure and popularizer of science, avid glacier explorer and mountain climber in the nineteenth century.
COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH PROJECTS
I have proposed a collaborative project that would bring together artists and historians to reimagine and center underrepresented voices in the history of mathematics. This project “Healing the Archive: History of Mathematics,” is currently being adjudicated for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.
I held a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the Science and Technology Studies department at York University under the direction of Bernard Lightman and Fern Elsdon-Baker, co-principal investigators of the multidisciplinary research project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum.
I teach courses in history of mathematics and science, science communication, data visualization and creativity at University of Toronto and McMaster University.
MAT 391 History of Mathematics after 1700 \ HPS 391 Rebels Who Count: The History of Mathematics from 1700 to the Present (IHPST, University of Toronto)
This cross-listed course in the Faculty of Arts and Science begins with history of mathematics after the invention of calculus. The course focuses on exploring the growth and increasing abstraction of mathematics in the modern period. Topics we cover are how to apply philosophical positions about mathematics to think about history, invention of the function concept, infinite series, invention of graph theory, complex numbers, standardization of units and measures, mathematical education, recreations and games, projective and non-Euclidean geometry, invention of set theory, history of computing, ethics in mathematics, gender in history of mathematics and diversity in STEM, open problems in math today.
MAT 390 History of Mathematics up to 1700 \ HPS 390 The Story of Number: Mathematics from the Babylonians to the Scientific Revolution (IHPST, University of Toronto)
This cross-listed course in the Faculty of Arts and Science surveys the earliest record of human counting up to the invention of calculus. The course explores how numeracy, like language, is a fundamental feature of human activity as we explore the invention of numerals and counting systems in various global cultures and contexts. From there we explore the beginnings of geometry and algebra, solution to indeterminate equations, how observing the stars motivated the development of right triangle theory and trigonometry, the invention of different number concepts (including zero, negative numbers, complex numbers, irrational numbers, algebraic and transcendental numbers), methods of proof and justification, what constitutes plagiarism in mathematics and history of mathematics, birth of probability and invention of calculus.
MATH 3Z3 Inquiry — History of Mathematics (Department of Mathematics and Statistics, McMaster University)
The course starts with the observation that numeracy, like language, is a feature of human activity from the earliest known evidence of human life. From there we go through a selection of developments in different cultures and contexts from ancient times to the present day. Some of the topics we cover in this class are numeracy in ancient civilizations, Greek geometric methods including quadrature, the classic problems of antiquity, Euclid’s Elements, Archimedes on areas and volumes, problems and methods from the ancient Chinese text The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art , Brahmagupta’s invention of zero and solution to the Pell equation, completing the square with al-Khwarizmi, Cardano’s solution of the cubic equation, Pascal’s arithmetical triangle and proof by induction, infinite series and calculus, the beginnings of graph theory, invention of set theory, history of computing, the four-colour theorem and proof by computer, gender in the history of mathematics and diversity in STEM.
HTHSCI 3KK3 Seeing and Understanding Data (Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University)
Good visualization can achieve quick and accurate understanding of significant data. Bad visualization can lead to misleading the public and misunderstanding research results. This course mines the history and philosophy of statistics and data visualization for lessons and strategies applicable to future careers in science and health science. By reflecting on the evolution of the tools we use to sample, measure and model data, this course develops critical thinking and reflection on how we apply these tools in epidemiology and health sciences today.
SCICOMM 2A03 Foundations of Science Communication (School of Interdisciplinary Science, McMaster University)
How do scientists make sure their work in the lab or the field is put to good use in communities? They communicate it to their peers, policymakers and the public. In this course students learn and practice the basics of effective written visual and oral science communication through creating lay summaries, graphics and oral presentations as well as audience profiles and communication proposals. We conduct study and critique how science is covered in the media past and present, and explore the growing field of science communication research. Students gain experience with a wide range of science communication activities and explore ways they can apply their scientific knowledge and education in various career trajectories.
VIC 259H Math and Creativity (Victoria College, University of Toronto)
This course explores the history of mathematics while building skill in narrative story-telling and image creation to reimagine the origin of mathematical ideas in accessible and compelling ways. We explode history and ideas, unpacking concepts in history and mathematics to weave compelling narratives using fresh perspectives and representations. Course topics include the concept of infinity, quantification of uncertainty, space and geometry, pattern and self-similarity, lives of mathematicians and historical controversies in mathematics. Students are encouraged to build unique narratives that incorporate or expand upon course topics. Examples of graphic storytelling will be presented for identification of effective narrative techniques and visual styles. Aspects of mathematics and its history are analyzed to enable the retelling, reframing, and re-visioning of the past from the perspective of the present and student’s own voices. Students acquire skills in media creation tools while exploring how narratives and images describe and structure our world.
HPS211 History of Modern Science (IHPST, University of Toronto)
Drawing on episodes in the history of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and the human sciences, this course examines conceptual changes in the practice of modern science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By investigating the conditions that gave rise to key elements of modern science including evolutionary theory, modern genetics, and the shift from a Newtonian to relativistic understanding of space and time, students assess the impact of major conceptual revolutions in science on contemporary society and culture. Social and ethical issues surrounding these changes are explored, such as science and gender, the scientific study of race, and the making of the atomic bomb.
Instructors in the mathematics and history of mathematics community have been involved for several years in a National Science Foundation funded project to write curriculum materials for undergraduate mathematics courses in which concepts are investigated using primary historical sources. Not all the projects are appropriate for history of mathematics courses, but several are and can be adapted for this purpose. Checkout TRIUMPHS: Transforming Instruction in Undergraduate Mathematics via Primary Historical Sources. I have been using these projects in my courses as well as projects developed earlier from Learning Discrete Mathematics and Computer Science via Primary Historical Sources.
ART AND MATHEMATICS
A current interest is how I can apply what I know from my work in graphic arts to present and communicate history of mathematics in new and exciting ways. Mathematical objects illustrated below include Napier’s bones, spiral defined by the golden ratio, Hindu-Arabic numerals, Cardano’s cube for algebraic solution to the cubic equation, sinusoidal function, Coxeter graph, Armillary sphere, Pascal’s arithmetical triangle, diagrammatic proof of the gou gu theorem (Pythagorean theorem in China), Fibonacci’s rabbit breeding problem, and a sphere.