Friedman, Michael (Author)

British Journal for the History of Mathematics

Volume: 34

Issue: 1

Pages: 43-59

The standard historical narrative regarding formalism during the twentieth century indicates the 1920s as a highpoint in the mathematical formalization project. This was marked by Hilbert’s statement that the sign stood at the beginning of pure mathematics [‘Neubegründung der Mathematik. Erste Mitteilung’, Abhandlungen aus dem Mathematischen Seminar der Universität Hamburg, 1 (1922), 157–177]. If one takes the braid group as a case study of research whose official goal was to symbolically formalize braids and weaving patterns, a reconsideration of this strict definition of formalism is nevertheless required. For example, does it reflect what actually occurred in practice in the mathematical research of this period? As this article shows, the research on the braid group between 1926 and 1950, led among others by Artin, Burau, Fröhlich and Bohnenblust, was characterized by a variety of practices and reasoning techniques. These were not only symbolic and deductive, but also diagrammatic and visual. Against the historical narrative of formalism as based on a well-defined chain of graphic signs that has freedom of interpretation, this article presents how these different ways of reasoning—which were not only sign based—functioned together within the research of the braid group; it will be shown how they are simultaneously necessary and complementary for each other.

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