I recently stumbled across an old meta discussion in which some people suggested that history of mathematics questions were off-topic for MO. This took me by surprise and I would like to ask for clarification about what kinds of "history" questions are unwelcome (by some). After all, "Has this result been proved before?" is technically a history question. In the aforementioned discussion, some people seemed to argue that the correctness of an answer to a historical question may require professional historical training to assess, and that MO readers typically don't have that training. I don't want to get into a long discussion here about why I believe this argument to be bogus (and founded on a misconception of what professional historical research is about), but will just say that the historical questions I have seen on MO have, in my opinion, either been on-target for the MO audience, or else defective for readily identifiable reasons other than a blanket inappropriateness of all history questions.

In short, my view is that history questions are fair game. I'd like to know if I should adjust my view.

  • $\begingroup$ So all questions are historical questions, because you can always write "Historically this is the argument ..." or "Historically, no one proved it. Here is a sketch for a proof ...", no? :-) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jul 7 '13 at 7:26
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    $\begingroup$ In any case, such questions should include doing your own look-ups beforehand and reporting the results with the question. $\endgroup$ – Gerald Edgar Jul 7 '13 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ @GeraldEdgar: this should be for all questions the case, independent of hte topic... $\endgroup$ – András Bátkai Jul 7 '13 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ Most people in that old meta discussion (all but possibly one, I believe) agreed that history questions should be considered on-topic. The specific question that spurred the discussion brought out IMO a more pressing meta-topic, on whether that question should be CW (heh! see another current discussion here). I and others said "yes it should", and you can see how right we were, because (hilariously) the better the answer, the fewer points it got, at least for the first three or four answers. Obviously such a comical scenario should not impinge on award of reputation points. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Jul 12 '13 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ "History of mathematics" is quite too broad for the question be answered without specifying more. It can discuss with which symbols some ancient people used to count... can also be connected with somewhat deeper maths. Also can be related to sociology of math with no math (recently in a history of math journal I saw a detailed account around connections between French mathematicians and German mathematician in the nazi context (late 30's). Some judgement is necessary to determine what's better fits here on MO and what not. $\endgroup$ – YCor Jun 8 at 17:06

Now that there is a Stack Exchange site dedicated to History of Science and Mathematics, I would suggest asking them there rather than here on MO.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. Many of the mathematicians who frequent this site, also regularly go to hsm.stackexchange.com and can answer questions there. $\endgroup$ – Gerald Edgar Jun 6 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ How many is “many”? I also know some who no longer do. $\endgroup$ – Francois Ziegler Jun 14 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @FrancoisZiegler Then I guess that means they are not interested in history questions anymore? $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni Jun 14 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Those I have in mind, still are. $\endgroup$ – Francois Ziegler Jun 14 at 15:43

I think well-formulated history questions, especially in connection with current research, were always on-topic and should be. Speaking from personal experience, I also had one, and it was well received. There is a long list of excellent historical questions on MO. I think it is more a good question-bad question problem, than a historical one.


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