Project (2012-2013)

Conditional Inequalities: American Pure and Applied Mathematics from the Cold War to the Present

In her dissertation project, Alma Steingart tracked the development of the American mathematical community in the decades following World War II. Mathematics is often presented as the most historically stable discipline whose methodology of proof and logical deduction dates back to Ancient Greece. Yet mathematics is also incredibly malleable: the precipitous growth of the field and its institutional remaking in the aftermath of WWII triggered worries over its intellectual boundaries. I am here interested in the relationship between ideas and institutions, showing how the two are mutually inclusive in the case of twentieth century mathematics.

The dissertation also sought to contribute to growing literature on the Cold War university. The growth of applied mathematics as an independent field of study, and the expansion of computing, operations research, and game theory were greatly aided by war-related projects and an increase in federal funding in the postwar period. Yet the growth of pure mathematics during the same time follows a different path. The development of mathematics as an abstract field with no direct relation to the external world actually increased during this period. Mathematicians enjoyed the fiscal benefit of the Cold War while maintaining the autonomy of their research by continuously redefining the nature of their field. With one hand in the humanities and another in the sciences, the development of mathematics demonstrates the malleability of the boundaries of knowledge. The dynamic relation between the natural and the human sciences reveals as much about institutions, practices, and nations as it does about epistemological commitments, which this project sought to explore.