Sputnik Calculus

It never crossed my mind that there could be a connection between Calculus teaching and the Moon landing. Until I made this trip.

Of course you need Calculus to calculate the trajectory for the spaceship taking you there. Before Newton it couldn’t have been done even in principle. Then it took another 300 years before the technology was available to do it in practice. China is going to repeat it. One of the astronauts who took a stroll on the moon apparently said, when he heard that: Good Luck!

That’s not what I’m referring to, though it takes more than Calculus.

In many of the conversations I’ve had over these six weeks the topic of the Sputnik and the Calculus has cropped up. I don’t remember exactly when I first heard it. It may have been at Beloit College, because one of the first things I talked with Paul Campbell about was the Calculus reform movement of the 90’s (am I correct about the timing here?) and it may very well have been mentioned during any one of our conversations. But it certainly came up during the week at Carleton and Macalester, although I don’t remember who first mentioned it. Then when over lunch Thursday that week (after a maths faculty retreat) when I chatted with Andrew Gainer-Dewar and Brian Shea, it came up again. Now I took notice. There is something here.

Here’s my somewhat romanticized take on it.

Well, it was the end of the forties & beginning of the fifties. A war-tired America was slowly waking up to new bright and good times. Ike Eisenhower was soon to become the President. He got the Korea war in his lap, but he was a general so he went there, took a look at the battlefield and decided that this war cannot be won – so he stopped fighting (some brains there). It was time for the fifties: big fancy cars, shopping malls, suburban utopia, TV, Elvis Presley, Rock & Roll, … America as it was lovingly satirized in Mad Magazine.

So what happens? The darned Soviets send up a Sputnik!

Of course, the cold war had been brewing for a while, but the rocket ship and this little tiny blinking thingy that the commies had shot up, was public. Then president Kennedy made that speech about landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Something had to be done. I’ve no idea about the debates and decisions at that time. Perhaps someone has written about it, should be an interesting read. But apparently better mathematics education was one of the many answers to the crisis that Sputnik initiated. Calculus became central to the American educational system with courses starting in high school and an even stronger focus at the college level.

This explains something I have noticed but haven’t understood the background to. You cannot interest yourself for American mathematics education without noticing the focus on calculus. Of course, it is important in the Swedish school system too, but not to that extent that you could almost call it a preoccupation.

That politics has educational consequences is obvious. The educational program I went to as an undergraduate: “Engineering Physics” (and the supporting research institutions) at Chalmers Institute of Technology, was set up in order to supply Sweden with nuclear physicists for the civil nuclear power program. All the big engineering schools had programs like this.

One more thing is noteworthy here. There is a Calculus textbook from the 70’s that sort of did set the standard for Calculus syllabi from then on. At the moment of writing I don’t have the reference (but American readers most probbaly know which one it is). I’ve heard it mentioned a few times and also seen it in writing. I will have to return to this, because I’m really interested to what extent Swedish Calculus syllabi are also influenced by this text.

Then we have the Calculus reform movement of the 90’s. I read a little about it in the Mathematical Intelligencer when it happended. All this is very intriguing. I will look into it when I get home.

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