The abandoned lectures had been running since the early 1980sPiers Bursill-Hall

It’s the subject that put Cambridge on the map. Its alumni include Isaac Newton, Bertrand Russell and Steven Hawking — and now, some students think it’s lost its edge.

The dispute turns on what the Maths course should include. To the Faculty, the answer seems simple: maths alone. But to these students, it’s more: it’s history and ethics.

The controversy comes as the Maths Department removed talks on the history of maths from its lecture list for this term; but in defiance of the decision, a group of Maths students have formed a society to keep learning with their former don.

Dr Piers Bursill-Hall, had been giving lectures on the history of maths for over 40 years but, without consultation, found his name removed from the Department’s lecture list.

In 2018, following Bursill-Hall’s retirement two years earlier, his lectures went from being classed as “non-examinable,” to “not organised by the faculty” — a move widely seen as the Department distancing themselves from him.

The Department has yet to provide an answer as to why the lectures were removed, but sources told Varsity that they believe the decision came from a group within the faculty that had a grievance against Bursill-Hall.

In 2015, with Bursill-Hall’s help, Dr Maurice Chiodo started giving lectures on the ethics of maths. Though also listed under the “non-examinable” section, some in the Department saw the lectures as an unnecessary distraction for Maths students: instead of studying for exams, they were learning abstract philosophy.

Some students are disappointed at the decision and the way it was reached. While changes to the lecture list tend to be made within Faculty meetings - where the student representatives are present - Bursill-Hall told Varsity that this decision was made over the summer, without consulting him or the students.

A group of Mathmos have responded to Bursill-Hall’s removal by forming a new society for the sole purpose of continuing lessons with the former don: the Cambridge University History of Maths Society (CUHoMS). Using a mailing list set-up by the breakaway students, like minded peers can receive Zoom links for lectures, humorous blog posts and invitations for social gatherings.


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The motivation for the society appears to have stemmed from the popularity of Bursill-Hall’s lectures. Known for their eccentric style, up to 100 students would often attend — one student said even her younger sister would come along to the lectures when they were online. For many, it was a chance to “broaden the horizons” of their subject — taking Maths out of the realm of abstract analysis and into the one of practical history, with lecture topics including the Islamic Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the telephone.

According to the society’s president, David Bai, “attending the lectures have been some of my fondest moments in Cambridge.

“They were filled with hilarious jokes, witty anecdotes and jaw-dropping historical facts. I used to be one of those, ‘mathmos should just do maths’ people, but now I realise that this exposure to history and philosophy is also necessary.”