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The word "mathematics" comes from the Greek μάθημα (máthēma) meaning science, knowledge, or learning, and μαθηματικός (mathēmatikós), meaning fond of learning. It is often abbreviated math in North American English and maths in Commonwealth English .

The earliest records of mathematics show it arising in response to practical needs in agriculture, business, and industry. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, where evidence dates from the 2d and 3d millennia B.C., it was used for surveying and mensuration; estimates of the value of π (pi) are found in both locations. There is some evidence of similar developments in India and China during this same period, but few records have survived. This early mathematics is generally empirical, arrived at by trial and error as the best available means for obtaining results, with no proofs given. However, it is now known that the Babylonians were aware of the necessity of proofs prior to the Greeks, who had been presumed the originators of this important step.

A profound change occurred in the nature and approach to mathematics with the contributions of the Greeks. The earlier (Hellenic) period is represented by Thales (6th cent. B.C.), Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, and by the schools associated with them. The Pythagorean theorem, known earlier in Mesopotamia, was discovered by the Greeks during this period.

During the Golden Age (5th cent. B.C.), Hippocrates of Chios made the beginnings of an axiomatic approach to geometry and Zeno of Elea proposed his famous paradoxes concerning the infinite and the infinitesimal, raising questions about the nature of and relationships among points, lines, and numbers. The discovery through geometry of irrational numbers, such as √2, also dates from this period. Eudoxus of Cnidus (4th cent. B.C.) resolved certain of the problems by proposing alternative methods to those involving infinitesimals; he is known for his work on geometric proportions and for his exhaustion theory for determining areas and volumes.

The later (Hellenistic) period of Greek science is associated with the school of Alexandria. The greatest work of Greek mathematics, Euclid's Elements (c.300 B.C.), appeared at the beginning of this period. Elementary geometry as taught in high school is still largely based on Euclid's presentation, which has served as a model for deductive systems in other parts of mathematics and in other sciences. In this method primitive terms, such as point and line, are first defined, then certain axioms and postulates relating to them and seeming to follow directly from them are stated without proof; a number of statements are then derived by deduction from the definitions, axioms, and postulates. Euclid also contributed to the development of arithmetic and presented a geometric theory of quadratic equations.

In the 3d cent. B.C., Archimedes, in addition to his work in mechanics, made an estimate of π and used the exhaustion theory of Eudoxus to obtain results that foreshadowed those much later of the integral calculus, and Apollonius of Perga named the conic sections and gave the first theory for them. A second Alexandrian school of the Roman period included contributions by Menelaus (c.A.D. 100, spherical triangles), Heron of Alexandria (geometry), Ptolemy (A.D. 150, astronomy, geometry, cartography), Pappus (3d cent., geometry), and Diophantus (3d cent., arithmetic).

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