Which Came First: Harvard or Calculus?

   Harvard University building with three red flags displaying the school emblems between four columns     Calculus equations written in white on a black chalkboard

True or false: Harvard University was founded before calculus was invented.

If you chose true, you're correct! Harvard, founded in 1636, is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. But you couldn’t take a calculus course at that time because it had not yet been invented.

While ideas underpinning calculus stretch back to ancient mathematicians in many cultures, it wasn't until the late 17th century when Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz developed the foundations of calculus. They came to their discoveries independently, and later mathematicians further refined their work.

Today, Harvard offers a multitude of calculus courses, including the newest from HarvardX — Calculus Applied! This MOOC (massive open online course) explores ways calculus applies in the real world, featuring examples of how practitioners in social, life, and physical sciences use calculus to answer questions, make models, and better understand the world.

Through case studies and hands-on activities, learners can explore applications like:

  • How standardized test makers use functions to analyze the difficulty of test questions
  • How an x-ray is different from a CT-scan, and what this has to do with integrals
  • How biologists use differential equation models to predict when populations will experience dramatic changes, such as extinction or outbreaks

Calculus Applied! is self-paced and ideal for students who have completed an introductory calculus course or teachers looking for authentic examples to share in their classrooms. Enroll and learn about the diverse ways calculus can be applied to analyze the world around us!

Calculus Applied! is taught by John Wesley Cain, senior lecturer on mathematics at Harvard University; Juliana Belding, professor of the practice in mathematics at Boston College; and Peter M. Garfield, professor of mathematics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


h/t 8 Surprising Historical Facts That Will Change Your Concept Of Time Forever