I grew up in Minnesota in a family of scientists, and spent a lot of my youth around the University of Minnesota. I went to college at Cornell University, double-majoring in mathematics and the College Scholar program, then spent a year each at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh as a Marshall Scholar. I returned to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in History of Science at Princeton University, teaching as an adjunct at The College of New Jersey for a semester before moving to Montreal, Canada, to finish my dissertation while my wife completed her own medical ("real") doctorate. I subsequently held postdoctoral fellowships at Dartmouth College and (briefly) Northwestern University.
Since late 2018, I have held a lectureship in the History of Science at the University of Edinburgh. My main extra-curricular activity is as a member of the volunteer board of the Telluride Association, an educational not-for-profit that creates unusual educational opportunities for talented and socially-engaged high school and university students.
I study the relationship between abstract knowledge and the modern world. Combining historical, sociological, and other methods, I investigate how people produce such knowledge; how it derives from their social, political, and other contexts; and how they use that knowledge to shape those contexts in turn.
This topic has taken me to a wide range of subjects over the years, from dots and diagrams in sixteenth-century books, to mathematical rigor in the wake of the French Revolution, to Victorian anthropologists' attempts to understand the farthest reaches of prehistory by asking how civilizations learn to count, all the way to present-day mathematicians' efforts to collaborate using technologies as grand as the Internet and as mundane as chalk and blackboards. You can read about all of these topics in articles available on my publications page.
Much of my current research revolves around two big questions:
The questions are more closely related than one might think. For both, I follow how changes to social structures and material technologies alter the nature of such abstractions as mathematical theories or national identities. I try to understand how pedagogy and communication change how people view the world and reach productive consensus about those views. I also show how some of the most seemingly universal and certain things people know come about only through embracing (and sometimes ignoring) fundamental ambiguities and idiosyncrasies in that knowledge.
The best way to reach me is by email to my first name at this website's domain (ending with dot com). Follow me on Twitter @MBarany.
During a lively conversation at a conference I recalled a quote attributed to Joseph-Louis Lagrange ("math is like the pig, all of it is good") and an inspired interlocutor said that would make a great t-shirt. So I drew up a design, and you can now find the quote on a range of products here, in English or French. (If you like the idea but would like something customized beyond what is available there, please get in touch.) Factoring in the gear I got for myself, so far this has been an entrepreneurial loss but a clear sartorial gain.
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