Photo of Hassler Whitney

Hassler Whitney

  • National Medal of Science
  • Mathematics And Computer Science

For founding, and bringing to maturity, the discipline of differential topology.

Hassler Whitney had a passion for improving how mathematics is taught, and made major contributions in the field of geometry. Whitney took a particular interest in an area of geography called topology, in which two objects are considered equivalent if they can be deformed into each other by manipulations like bending, twisting, stretching, or shrinking — but not taking away or glueing on additional parts.Whitney is credited with establishing the foundation of graph theory and esoteric disciplines.

In 1967, Whitney dedicated himself fulltime to improving mathematics education. He focused on how children are introduced to mathematics and zeroed in on eliminating ”mathematics anxiety,” which he called the reason most students do not take a liking to the subject matter.

Whitney noted there is major pressure to teach student ”the right things the right way,” hindering their ability to explore and understand the subject through their own curiosity. He asserted it causes students to memorize instead of learn.

”Those few children who continue applying their own thinking to real-life problems find the computational algorithms transparent and natural,” he wrote in 1982. ”The others see complex and apparently shifting rules to apply in each new topic, and get terribly confused. This causes more straight teaching by the teacher, further forcing rote learning and resulting failure.”

By Christine Ayala