Renaissance Mathematics

'If this was 1512, you'd never have heard of decimals, nor graphs and coordinates! '

There was a time when one man/woman could know all that was currently known and be a leading light across a number of fields of human knowledge. The Renaissance Man had no boxes, borders or boundaries ("Boxes", by Charlie Winston). This activity explores: What changed during the Renaissance? Why did these changes take place? How are these changes connected to each other? Watch the BBC clip from Marcus de Sautoy (an Oxford University Professor) before exploring the definition of curves using algebra - sitting back to back can you define perfectly the picture in front of you for your partner to reproduce? Then it's a decimals versus fractions race - are decimals a "better" representation of proportion than fractions?

This music will be playing as you walk into the room, it is important that you read the lyrics! Welcome to the Renaissance:


The Renaissance was a time when there were few "boxes, borders or boundaries" (listen and read the lyrics to the song above) between the different subjects, and you could truly aspire to being an expert in a range of subjects. In today's modern, highly specialised world, it is already a big achievement to be an expert in a small area of a single subject! This is testimony to the quantity of knowledge humanity has acquired over the last few hundred years.

One team will need this activity sheet (you must not show it to the other team!):  Geometry-Algebra Decimals1

This is the sheet for the second team:  Geometry-Algebra Decimals2.

Work in pairs, sitting back to back (the key thing is that you must not look at your partner's sheet).

Old Money Video

The first 1m30 introduces the Spanish real de a ocho (first minted in 1497), the pirate's famous "pieces of eight", silver dollar, exchangeable one-for-one with a US silver dollar during the 1700s. As of 3m52 you can see the guinea, crown, half-crown and the British shilling that is described in the activity.


  • Listen to the music, and read the lyrics, of the song whilst you're waiting for everyone to arrive and be ready to start the activity.
  • Sitting back to back with a partner, you have to describe to your partner, sitting behind you, the exact location of each of the radio masts they need to position on the page. Think about how you can describe exactly the position of each. In the corner of your page is a picture of the US B-2 stealth bomber, which you have been allocated to transport the telephone masts to their positions - composite materials, engines buried in the wings, radar absorbing paint and its "faceted" radar reflecting surface make it almost undetectable.
  • Now it's time to convert 1550s money into its modern day equivalent. One team has a graph to help them do this, the other doesn't. Graphs and coordinates were one of the major developments of the renaissance - let's see which team is fastest! Watch the video above to understand the sort of currency being used in these times and how one could simply cut a coin into four or eight pieces to give people change!
  • Simon Stevin, during the 1550s, brought decimal number notation into widespread use in Europe. Why was this such a revolution in mathematics? One team will be calculating using fractions, the other using the equivalent numbers expressed as decimals - let's see who is fastest!
  • Can you write the number: 234.534 using Stevin's original decimal notation? The first team to manage it scores five points!
  • What were some of the key developments in mathematics during the renaissance period that we have looked at during this lesson? Summarise them on the back of your packs.
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