Newton and Leibniz Duke It Out on Twitter

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Isaac Newton are an unlikely pair for a face-off on Twitter. But a class at Muskegon Community College has brought the pair’s struggle for credit as the inventor of calculus to the social-networking site.

Maria H. Andersen, a math instructor at the Michigan institution, came up with the idea together with the three students in her honors section of Calculus II. She typically has students work on a project based on The Calculus Wars, by Jason Socrates Bardi. Newton had written a manuscript describing calculus as early as 1665, the book relates, but Leibniz later discovered calculus independently and published first.

Ms. Andersen and her students thought re-enacting the battle on Twitter might be an interesting way to show the year-by-year progression of the row. “It really is more about people than the math,” she says. “So it’s a story about when complications get involved and social networks get involved.”

The Twitter battle, under the hashtag #calcwars, is scripted in advance by the students in a Google document and edited in weekly meetings. The students used The Calculus Wars to provide a basic timeline but added details through their own research.

Each day they typically post tweets comprising several years, three or four tweets per year.  The students plan to cover the period from 1661, when Newton entered the University of Cambridge, until his death, in 1727; they’re at about 1700 right now.

About 20 Twitter accounts have been created to include other people involved in “The Calculus Tweetwars” project, as Ms. Andersen calls it. She encourages outsiders to ask questions of the students via Twitter.

She is also archiving the Twitter project on her Web site, for the benefit of other math instructors who might want to share the calculus wars with their students as well.



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