Great Thinkers, Great Theorems

Course No. 1471
Professor William Dunham, Ph.D.
Muhlenberg College
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Course No. 1471
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Course Overview

Mathematics is filled with beautiful theorems that are as breathtaking as the most celebrated works of art, literature, or music. They are the Mona Lisas, Hamlets, and Fifth Symphonys of the field—landmark achievements that repay endless study and that are the work of geniuses as fascinating as Leonardo, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Here is a sample:

  • Pythagorean theorem: Although he didn't discover the Pythagorean theorem about a remarkable property of right triangles, the Greek mathematician Euclid devised an ingenious proof that is a mathematical masterpiece. Plus, it's beautiful to look at!
  • Area of a circle: The formula for the area of a circle, A = π r2, was deduced in a marvelous chain of reasoning by the Greek thinker Archimedes. His argument relied on the clever tactic of proof by contradiction not once, but twice.
  • Basel problem: The Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler won his reputation in the early 1700s by evaluating an infinite series that had stumped the best mathematical minds for a generation. The solution was delightfully simple; the path to it, bewilderingly complex.
  • Larger infinities: In the late 1800s, the German mathematician Georg Cantor blazed the trail into the "transfinite" by proving that some infinite sets are bigger than others, thereby opening a strange new realm of mathematics.

You can savor these results and many more in Great Thinkers, Great Theorems, 24 half-hour lectures that conduct you through more than 3,000 years of beautiful mathematics, telling the story of the growth of the field through a carefully chosen selection of its most awe-inspiring theorems.

Approaching great theorems the way an art course approaches great works of art, the course opens your mind to new levels of math appreciation. And it requires no more than a grasp of high school mathematics, although it will delight mathematicians of all abilities.

Your guide on this lavishly illustrated tour, which features detailed graphics walking you through every step of every proof, is Professor William Dunham of Muhlenberg College, an award-winning teacher who has developed an artist's eye for conveying the essence of a mathematical idea. Through his enthusiasm for brilliant strategies, novel tactics, and other hallmarks of great theorems, you learn how mathematicians think and what they mean by "beauty" in their work. As added enrichment, the course guidebook has supplementary questions and problems that allow you to go deeper into the ideas behind the theorems.

An Innovative Approach to Mathematics

Professor Dunham has been taking this innovative approach to mathematics for over a quarter-century—in the classroom and in his popular books. With Great Thinkers, Great Theorems you get to watch him bring this subject to life in stimulating lectures that combine history, biography, and, above all, theorems, presented as a series of intellectual adventures that have built mathematics into the powerful tool of analysis and understanding that it is today.

In the arts, a great masterpiece can transform a genre; think of Claude Monet's 1872 canvas Impression, Sunrise, which gave the name to the Impressionist movement and revolutionized painting. The same is true in mathematics, with the difference that the revolution is permanent. Once a theorem has been established, it is true forever; it never goes out of style. Therefore the great theorems of the past are as fresh and impressive today as on the day they were first proved.

What Makes a Theorem Great?

A theorem is a mathematical proposition backed by a rigorous chain of reasoning, called a proof, that shows it is indisputably true. As for greatness, Professor Dunham believes the defining qualities of a great theorem are elegance and surprise, exemplified by these cases:

  • Elegance: Euclid has a beautifully simple way of showing that any finite collection of prime numbers can't be complete—that there is always at least one prime number left out, proving that the prime numbers are infinite. Dr. Dunham calls this one of the greatest proofs in all of mathematics.
  • Surprise: Another Greek, Heron, devised a formula for triangular area that is so odd that it looks like it must be wrong. "It's my favorite result from geometry just because it's so implausible," says Dr. Dunham, who shows how, 16 centuries later, Isaac Newton used algebra in an equally surprising route to the same result.

Great Thinkers, Great Theorems includes many lectures that are devoted to a single theorem. In these, Professor Dunham breaks the proof into manageable pieces so that you can follow it in detail. When you get to the Q.E.D.—the initials traditionally ending a proof, signaling quod erat demonstrandum (Latin for "that which was to be demonstrated")—you can step back and take in the masterpiece as a whole, just as you would with a painting in a museum.

In other lectures, you focus on the biographies of the mathematicians behind these masterpieces—geniuses who led eventful, eccentric, and sometimes tragic lives. For example:

  • Cardano: Perhaps the most bizarre mathematician who ever lived, the 16th-century Italian Gerolamo Cardano was a gambler, astrologer, papal physician, convicted heretic, and the first to publish the solution of cubic and quartic algebraic equations, which he did after a no-holds-barred competition with rival mathematicians.
  • Newton and Leibniz: The battle over who invented calculus, the most important mathematical discovery since ancient times, pitted Isaac Newton—mathematician, astronomer, alchemist—against Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz— mathematician, philosopher, diplomat. Each believed the other was trying to steal the credit.
  • Euler: The most inspirational story in the history of mathematics belongs to Leonhard Euler, whose astonishing output barely slowed down after he went blind in 1771. Like Beethoven, who composed some of his greatest music after going deaf, Euler was able to practice his art entirely in his head.
  • Cantor: While Vincent van Gogh was painting pioneering works of modern art in France in the late 1800s, Georg Cantor was laying the foundations for modern mathematics next door in Germany. Unappreciated at first, the two rebels even looked alike, and both suffered debilitating bouts of depression.

Describing a common reaction to the theorems produced by these great thinkers, Professor Dunham says his students often want to know where the breakthrough ideas came from: How did the mathematicians do it? The question defies analysis, he says. "It's like asking: ‘Why did Shakespeare put the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet? What made him think of it?' Well, he was Shakespeare. This is what genius looks like!" And by watching the lectures in Great Thinkers, Great Theorems, you will see what equivalent genius looks like in mathematics.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Theorems as Masterpieces
    Certain theorems stand out as great masterpieces of mathematics that can be appreciated as great works of art. After hearing Professor Dunham explain this approach, discover the two ways of proving a theorem: direct proof and indirect proof. Also, meet some of the great thinkers whose ideas you will be studying. x
  • 2
    Mathematics before Euclid
    Investigate three non-Greek civilizations that had robust traditions in mathematics. Then encounter a pair of Greek mathematicians who predated Euclid, but who left very deep footprints: Thales and Pythagoras—the latter renowned for the theorem that bears his name. x
  • 3
    The Greatest Mathematics Book of All
    Begin your exploration of the work widely considered the greatest mathematical text of all time: Euclid's Elements. Discover why these 13 succinct books have been so influential for so long as you delve into the ground-laying definitions, postulates, common notions, and theorems from book I. x
  • 4
    Euclid's Elements—Triangles and Polygons
    Continuing your journey through Euclid, work your way toward his most famous result: his proof of the Pythagorean theorem—a demonstration of remarkable visual and intellectual beauty. Also, cover some of the techniques from book IV for constructing regular polygons. x
  • 5
    Number Theory in Euclid
    In addition to being a geometer, Euclid was a pioneering number theorist, a subject he took up in books VII, VIII, and IX of the Elements. Focus on his proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers, which Professor Dunham considers one of the greatest proofs in all of mathematics. x
  • 6
    The Life and Works of Archimedes
    Even more distinguished than Euclid was Archimedes, whose brilliant ideas took centuries to fully absorb. Probe the life and famous death of this absent-minded thinker, who once ran unclothed through the streets, shouting "Eureka!" ("I have found it!") on solving a problem in his bath. x
  • 7
    Archimedes' Determination of Circular Area
    See Archimedes in action by following his solution to the problem of determining circular area—a question that seems trivial today but only because he solved it so simply and decisively. His unusual strategy relied on a pair of indirect proofs. x
  • 8
    Heron's Formula for Triangular Area
    Heron of Alexandria (also called Hero) is known as the inventor of a proto-steam engine many centuries before the Industrial Revolution. Discover that he was also a great mathematician who devised a curious method for determining the area of a triangle from the lengths of its three sides. x
  • 9
    Al-Khwarizmi and Islamic Mathematics
    With the decline of classical civilization in the West, the focus of mathematical activity shifted to the Islamic world. Investigate the proofs of the mathematician whose name gives us our term "algorithm": al-Khwarizmi. His great book on equation solving also led to the term "algebra." x
  • 10
    A Horatio Algebra Story
    Visit the ruthless world of 16th-century Italian universities, where mathematicians kept their discoveries to themselves so they could win public competitions against their rivals. Meet one of the most colorful of these figures: Gerolamo Cardano, who solved several key problems. In secret, of course. x
  • 11
    To the Cubic and Beyond
    Trace Cardano's path to his greatest triumph: the solution to the cubic equation, widely considered impossible at the time. His protégé, Ludovico Ferrari, then solved the quartic equation. Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel later showed that no general solutions are possible for fifth- or higher-degree equations. x
  • 12
    The Heroic Century
    The 17th century saw the pace of mathematical innovations accelerate, not least in the introduction of more streamlined notation. Survey the revolutionary thinkers of this period, including John Napier, Henry Briggs, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and Pierre de Fermat, whose famous "last theorem" would not be proved until 1995. x
  • 13
    The Legacy of Newton
    Explore the eventful life of Isaac Newton, one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Obsessive in his search for answers to questions from optics to alchemy to theology, he made his biggest mark in mathematics and science, inventing calculus and discovering the law of universal gravitation. x
  • 14
    Newton's Infinite Series
    Start with the binomial expansion, then turn to Newton's innovation of using fractional and negative exponents to calculate roots—an example of his creative use of infinite series. Also see how infinite series allowed Newton to approximate sine values with extraordinary accuracy. x
  • 15
    Newton's Proof of Heron's Formula
    Return to Heron's ancient formula for determining the area of a triangle to consider Newton's proof using algebraic techniques—an approach he also applied to other geometry problems. The steps are circuitous, but the result bears Newton's stamp of genius. x
  • 16
    The Legacy of Leibniz
    Probe the career of Newton's great rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who came relatively late to mathematics, plunging in during a diplomatic assignment to Paris. In short order, he discovered the "Leibniz series" to represent π, and within a few years he invented calculus independently of Newton. x
  • 17
    The Bernoullis and the Calculus Wars
    Follow the bitter dispute between Newton and Leibniz over priority in the development of calculus. Also encounter the Swiss brothers Jakob and Johann Bernoulli, enthusiastic supporters of Leibniz. Their fierce sibling rivalry extended to their competition to outdo each other in mathematical discoveries. x
  • 18
    Euler, the Master
    Meet history's most prolific mathematician, Leonhard Euler, who went blind in his sixties but kept turning out brilliant papers. A sampling of his achievements: the number e, crucial in calculus; Euler's identity, responsible for the most beautiful theorem ever; Euler's polyhedral formula; and Euler's path. x
  • 19
    Euler's Extraordinary Sum
    Euler won his spurs as a great mathematician by finding the value of a converging infinite series that had stumped the Bernoulli brothers and everyone else who tried it. Pursue Euler's analysis through the twists and turns that led to a brilliantly simple answer. x
  • 20
    Euler and the Partitioning of Numbers
    Investigate Euler's contribution to number theory by first warming up with the concept of amicable numbers—a truly rare breed of integers until Euler vastly increased the supply. Then move on to Euler's daring proof of a partitioning property of whole numbers. x
  • 21
    Gauss—the Prince of Mathematicians
    Dubbed the Prince of Mathematicians by the end of his career, Carl Friedrich Gauss was already making major contributions by his teen years. Survey his many achievements in mathematics and other fields, focusing on his proof that a regular 17-sided polygon can be constructed with compass and straightedge alone. x
  • 22
    The 19th Century—Rigor and Liberation
    Delve into some of the important trends of 19th-century mathematics: a quest for rigor in securing the foundations of calculus; the liberation from the physical sciences, embodied by non-Euclidean geometry; and the first significant steps toward opening the field to women. x
  • 23
    Cantor and the Infinite
    Another turning point of 19th-century mathematics was an increasing level of abstraction, notably in the approach to the infinite taken by Georg Cantor. Explore the paradoxes of the "completed" infinite, and how Cantor resolved this mystery with transfinite numbers, exemplified by the transfinite cardinal aleph-naught. x
  • 24
    Beyond the Infinite
    See how it's possible to build an infinite set that's bigger than the set of all whole numbers, which is itself infinite. Conclude the course with Cantor's theorem that the transcendental numbers greatly outnumber the seemingly more abundant algebraic numbers—a final example of the elegance, economy, and surprise of a mathematical masterpiece. x

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Your professor

William Dunham

About Your Professor

William Dunham, Ph.D.
Muhlenberg College
Dr. William Dunham is the Truman Koehler Professor of Mathematics at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Mathematics from The Ohio State University. Before his current appointment at Muhlenberg, Dr. Dunham taught at Hanover College in Indiana, receiving teaching awards from both institutions as well as the Award for...
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Reviews

Great Thinkers, Great Theorems is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 99.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Enjoyable Presentation I really enjoyed Great Thinkers, Great Theorems. I especially liked Professor Dunham's presentation. Before I go into any detail of the actual presentation, I want to say something about Professor Dunham. His voice is comforting, with a slight low raspiness. I felt like I had heard his voice, before. About halfway through the course, it dawned on me; he sounds just like a musical genius, Peter Schickele, and his fictitious alter ego, P. D. Q. Bach, who I love. If you aren't familiar with either, look them up. You will hear what I mean. As far as the lectures, there is a combination of history and math. Some of the historical events for the "Great Thinkers" I have heard many times over the years. Yet, the way Professor Dunham presents these same events were unique and very enjoyable. Although the Math Geniuses he selected were few, they were some of the greatest. I disagree with some reviews that no, to little, mathematical proofs were given, Professor Dunham proved most of the equations he presented as examples of why these "Great Thinkers" developed these "Great Theorems". There are only a few proofs that he decided not to show, because of their complexity. Most proofs only need high school algebra to understand them. Only at the very end of the course is there any mention of calculus, and this had to do with limits. Quite a few lectures had to do with geometry; circles and triangles, in particular. Professor Dunham used many graphic slides to show the construction of these geometric shapes and proofs of their properties. At the very end, Professor Dunham discussed the types of infinity, in ways that I have never heard, before. I actually could understand the differences for the first time. So, I felt the course covered most of what I expected and did not expect a complete math textbook. There could have been more mathematicians and theorems included, but, there are other Greate Courses that cover other math topics I would recommend this course to anyone who wants to know about well-known math geniuses and why they are considered geniuses.
Date published: 2020-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent content, expertly delivered. Most enjoyable course and a great and knowledgeable presented.
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Dunham is a hoot! With trepidation I inserted this course into my DVD player thinking the material would be dry and lifeless. I found to the contrary that the course was educational and entertaining, the latter thanks to Professor Dunham's dry humor. Honestly, he cracked me up but that is not to say that he didn't convey many interesting concepts. Like the Astrophysics Great Course I saw how mathematical minds greater than my own operated and I gain some new perspectives on how mathematics can lead us to discoveries of things unimagined.
Date published: 2020-07-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not what I expected I'm not sure what I expected, but stripped-down coverage of this subject, and a speaker walking back and forth in a small area wasn't it. His uncertainty on which camera he should be looking at is distracting. The graphics (what there are of them) are passably decent, but not really engaging. There's no really in-depth coverage of the subject. I'm stalled half-way through session six, and I'm seriously having trouble motivating myself to keep watching. Fortunately, I paid the sale price instead of the full price, so I suppose that I paid exactly what the course is worth. I won't be purchasing another Great Course.
Date published: 2020-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Most Enjoyable Math History Course I loved spanning the ages and marveling at the amazing work done by these individuals. Professor Dunham's choices of thinkers and theorems to highlight were spot on. The math was presented clearly and was easy to follow.
Date published: 2020-05-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from terrific lecturer This is not the most dramatic subject(unless you happen to be a math nerd which I'm not). However Professor Dunham is such an engaging lecturer and is so at ease I think he makes this course really fun to watch and I learned quite a bit from it.I have done many of the Great Courses and find him and Rufus Fears the best teachers I've encountered
Date published: 2020-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super learning for new course I am producing a new "History of Mathematics 11" course for online learning. I have a huge personal library on math history, however, I needed this to really get my thinking about how to approach the course. The proofs that he gives are superb. I really like Newton's Proof of Heron's Area formula. I did this on my own about 40 years ago, and it was neat to see how he did it.
Date published: 2020-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Thinkers, Great Theorems Good course on the history of math without getting to deep into proofs. Could use a few more worked out examples.
Date published: 2020-01-19
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