Credited for independently discovering his version of integral calculus and determinants in 17th Century isolationist era Japan; Was Seki Kówa Japan’s forgotten mathematical genius?
By: Ringo Bones
Fortunately for us in the West, Japanese intellectuals was still “literate” enough to jot down their musings for posterity even in the harshly despotic and isolationist regimes of the Hideoshi and Tokugawa shogunates of 16th and 17th Century era Japan. It probably wasn’t until Commodore Matthew Perry imposed his “Gunboat Diplomacy” back in 1853 and 1854 that finally allowed the curious West to scrutinize what Japanese intellectuals managed to discover during their country’s isolationist period. And with the Meiji Restoration period of 1868 to 1912, the Western world finally uncovered that the Japanese development in mathematics was as advanced that of in Europe.
Enter Seki Kówa, traditionally credited in Japan for discovering his version of the integral calculus during the 17th Century. His yenri or circle principle, which was documented back in 1670, uses a series of triangles to measure the area of a circle. Like that used by 17th Century contemporary calculus discoverers in Europe, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz.
Seki Kówa also independently discovered the mathematical principle of determinants back in 1683. While in Europe, calculus pioneer Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz also independently discovered the principle of determinants 10 years later – in 1693. While integral calculus in our day and age is indispensable in determining the volume of all manner of irregular shapes, such as airplane fuselages and oil storage tanks and the areas of curved surfaces to find the exact amount of sheet metal to use in a car body or the lifting surfaces of a modern jet. We – in the present - are still thankful for a now largely forgotten 17th Century Japanese mathematical genius named Seki Kówa for being curious enough for contributing his own ideas on integral calculus and other then still obscure mathematical concepts in the 1600s.