Friday, 24 February 2017 — 12:00 noon — GAR 4.100

Michael J. Barany, Dartmouth College

“Wordplay, Abuses of Language, and Making Sense in Modern Intercontinental Mathematics”

First proposed in 1945, French mathematician Laurent Schwartz’s theory of distributions became one of the first and most successful mathematical theories to take hold on multiple continents within its first decade, sustaining networks of scholars that interacted on a scale with few precedents in the history of mathematics. Tracing the media and metaphors with which mathematicians explained the theory to each other, advanced new interpretations, and reconciled existing ones, I explain the theory’s early history in terms of mathematicians’ changing ways of “making sense” in the mid-twentieth century. I argue that wordplay and suggestive comparisons—often termed “abuses of language”—helped tie communities of scholars together within the period’s constraints in travel and publication, in ways distinctive to distributions’ context in the histories of mathematics and of international science. Material limits and linguistic ambiguity, here, offered important resources for asserting relevance and unity in a fragmented and heterogeneous discipline. Placing such ambiguities and ambivalences at the center of the history of modern mathematical research offers a new approach to accounting for its scale and development in the last century, related to recent developments in both the history and philosophy of modern science.


Michael J. Barany received his PhD in 2016 from Princeton’s Program in History of Science and is currently a postdoc in the Dartmouth College Society of Fellows. His current book project explains the globalization of mathematical research and disciplinary institutions in the twentieth century. Some two dozen publications on topics ranging from dots in sixteenth century printed geometry to blackboards in contemporary mathematics are available at