Gonzaga In Florence

A Mathematician in Italy

Nathanial Burch, Ph. D.

Mathematics is unique in the sense that it is shared among all individuals regardless of religion, culture, etc. It is often thought of as the universal language, or at the very least the language of the sciences. Teaching abroad for the first time in my life has allowed me to further appreciate that. Outside of the classroom walls, everything (food, culture, language, etc.) is different. Inside them, however, the mathematics remains the same. So, in many ways, teaching mathematics in Florence has been no different than teaching mathematics in Spokane – save for small details like struggling to find symbols on a European keyboard. That said, in many other ways, teaching mathematics in Florence has been such a new and incredible experience.

Mathematics builds on itself, year after year, and theorem after theorem. Isaac Newton is often credited for the quote: If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In Florence, we have the privilege of taking a closer look at some of the giants of mathematics that came before us. I’ve stood in the Camposanto in Pisa, where Leonardo Fibonacci Pisano is buried. Most famous for the Fibonacci numbers, Fibonacci also played a critical role in popularizing the decimal system we still use today. The final resting place of Galileo Galilei is only a few steps from my apartment. A few blocks further, the Museo Galileo contains many of Galileo’s works, such as early designs for a pendulum clock, which, in special cases, can be modeled by second-order linear ODEs (my students will know exactly what this means). To learn that a seemingly simple pendulum clock, which we can study mathematically, would remain the most accurate timekeeping device for centuries breathes life and motivation into the classroom.

While teaching in Florence has seemed largely familiar, living in Florence has been another story. Every day is a new adventure. Not speaking a lick of Italian and being a fairly independent person, I often find myself walking the evening streets of Florence in contemplative solitude. Those walks have been some of my favorites; surrounded by art, monuments, buildings, and sculptures that point to the giants whose shoulders my students and I now stand on.

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