Among all human endeavors, mathematics stands alone in terms of its beauty, universality, and innumerable applications. Though its role is often obscured by esoteric language, mathematics is behind almost all of humanity’s major advances in science and engineering.

Bridges stand, planes fly, rockets carry us into space, and MRIs can see into our brains thanks to precise mathematical calculations performed by powerful computers, invented by mathematicians such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann. Behind tasks performed by computers—predicting the weather, performing complex financial transactions, or encrypting billions of messages each day—lie sophisticated mathematical algorithms. Artificial intelligence, for example, is but a happy marriage between powerful computers and abstract mathematical models that sort and analyze massive amounts of data.

Before our discipline became the universal global enterprise it is today, great mathematical discoveries passed from ancient civilizations to medieval ones and then to modern ones. One can argue that the preeminence of each civilization was, in part, due to their sophisticated understanding and use of mathematics. This is particularly clear in the case of the West, which forged ahead in the 17th century with the discovery of calculus, one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time.