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A quest for exactness: machines, algebra and geometry for tractional constructions of differential equations

Abstract : In "La Géométrie," Descartes proposed a “balance” between geometric constructions and symbolic manipulation with the introduction of suitable ideal machines. In particular, Cartesian tools were polynomial algebra (analysis) and a class of diagrammatic constructions (synthesis). This setting provided a classification of curves, according to which only the algebraic ones were considered “purely geometrical.” This limit was overcome with a general method by Newton and Leibniz introducing the infinity in the analytical part, whereas the synthetic perspective gradually lost importance with respect to the analytical one—geometry became a mean of visualization, no longer of construction. Descartes’s foundational approach (analysis without infinitary objects and synthesis with diagrammatic constructions) has, however, been extended beyond algebraic limits, albeit in two different periods. In the late 17th century, the synthetic aspect was extended by “tractional motion” (construction of transcendental curves with idealized machines). In the first half of the 20th century, the analytical part was extended by “differential algebra,” now a branch of computer algebra. This thesis seeks to prove that it is possible to obtain a new balance between these synthetic and analytical extensions of Cartesian tools for a class of transcendental problems. In other words, there is a possibility of a new convergence of machines, algebra, and geometry that gives scope for a foundation of (a part of) infinitesimal calculus without the conceptual need of infinity. The peculiarity of this work lies in the attention to the constructive role of geometry as idealization of machines for foundational purposes. This approach, after the “de-geometrization” of mathematics, is far removed from the mainstream discussions of mathematics, especially regarding foundations. However, though forgotten these days, the problem of defining appropriate canons of construction was very important in the early modern era, and had a lot of influence on the definition of mathematical objects and methods. According to the definition of Bos [2001], these are “exactness problems” for geometry. Such problems about exactness involve philosophical and psychological interpretations, which is why they are usually considered external to mathematics. However, even though lacking any final answer, I propose in conclusion a very primitive algorithmic approach to such problems, which I hope to explore further in future research. From a cognitive perspective, this approach to calculus does not require infinity and, thanks to idealized machines, can be set with suitable “grounding metaphors” (according to the terminology of Lakoff and Núñez [2000]). This concreteness can have useful fallouts for math education, thanks to the use of both physical and digital artifacts (this part will be treated only marginally).
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Pietro Milici. A quest for exactness: machines, algebra and geometry for tractional constructions of differential equations. History and Overview [math.HO]. Université Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne; Università degli studi di Palermo, 2015. English. ⟨tel-01889365⟩

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