Massimo Mazzotti


Thomas M. Siebel Presidential Chair in the History of Science


History of Science

Science, Technology, and Society

Research Interests

History of modern mathematics, quantification, standardization, algorithms.

History of technology, mechanization, automation, industrial design.

Enlightenment / Reaction.

I'm interested in mathematics and technology as dimensions of world-ordering processes.

My first monograph, The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Mathematician of God, explores the world in which Agnesi lived and wrote her book of mathematics, the first authored by a woman (1748). Using the lens of microhistory, I reconstruct the conditions within which she emerged as a child prodigy in 1720s Milan, and was trained in natural philosophy and mathematics during the 1730s. At a time in which women could not access universities, Agnesi learned about the most recent developments of calculus and went on to write the first systematic presentation of its techniques. This was a mystifying choice for her contemporaries and, to understand it, we have to familiarize ourselves with Gaetana’s intense devotion, and the value she gave to a well-trained intellect in religious life. In her book, Agnesi argued for the significance of infinitesimal calculus as an intellectual exercise, rather than a set of useful tools for measuring and controlling reality. This position was distant from those of most contemporary mathematicians, and gave her book a distinctive style and structure. I thus argue for the social shaping of mathematical knowledge: in this case, its essential relation to specific religious practices and to the notion of “attention”. I also argue for the role of the Catholic Church in Agnesi’s career, and for the relevance of a revised notion of “Catholic Enlightenment” to reconstruct the development of eighteenth-century science in Europe. Finally, I trace the decline of the phenomenon of the Italian “women philosophers” — women who, like Agnesi, had entered the world of higher knowledge in the first half of the century. By the early 1800s, the establishment of new scientific theories had made it abundantly clear that the “female mind” was not suitable to the sciences, least of all to mathematics.

My second monograph, Reactionary Mathematics: A Genealogy of Purity reconstructs the emergence of modern mathematics during the first half of the nineteenth century as, at once, a mathematical and a political transformation. I focus on the Kingdom of Naples, where this change is visible early on, and takes a radical form. Here, between 1790 and 1830, leading scientific institutions rejected as untrustworthy the hegemonic mathematics of the time, French analysis, and in its place consolidated, legitimated, and put to work a different mathematical culture. I argue that theirs was a mathematical resistance, which implied a complete reorientation of mathematical practice. Over the unrestricted manipulation and application of algebraic algorithms, Neapolitan mathematicians called for a return to Greek-style geometry and the preeminence of a newly defined “pure mathematics.” For all their apparent backwardness, they were arguing for what would become crucial features of modern mathematics: its voluntary restriction through a new kind of rigor and discipline, and the complete disconnection of mathematical truth from the empirical world—in other words, its purity. The Neapolitans, I argue, were reacting to the widespread use of mathematical analysis in social and political arguments. Theirs was a reactionary mathematics that aimed to technically refute the revolutionary mathematics of the Jacobins. During the Restoration, the expert groups in the service of the modern administrative state reaffirmed the role of pure mathematics as the foundation of a newly rigorous mathematics, which was now conceived as a neutral tool for modernization. What emerges vividly, is that producing mathematical knowledge was equally about producing certain forms of social, political, and economic order. Profile


PhD, Science Studies Unit, University of Edinburgh.

Laurea in Filosofia, Università di Milano.

Professional Experience

Director, Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society, UC Berkeley.

Director, Office for History of Science and Technology, UC Berkeley.

Lecturer and Senior Lecturer of Sociology, University of Exeter.

Kenneth May Fellow in the History of Mathematics, University of Toronto.

Postdoctoral Fellow, Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, MIT.


 A Genealogy of Purity"

Reactionary Mathematics. A Genealogy of Purity. Chicago University Press, 2023.

American Association for Italian Studies (AAIS) 2023 Book Prize

Editor (with Morgan Ames) — Algorithmic Modernity: Mechanizing Thought and Action, 1500-2000. Oxford University Press, 2023.
Editor - The History of Science. 6 vols., Routledge, 2020.
"Impure Cultures," co-edited by Massimo Mazzotti Editor (with Giuliano Pancaldi) — Impure Cultures: Interfacing Science, Technologies, and Humanities. Università di Bologna, 2010.
"Knowledge as Social Order," edited by Massimo Mazzotti Editor — Knowledge as Social Order. Rethinking the Sociology of Barry BarnesAshgate, 2008.
"The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God" by Massimo Mazzotti

The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of GodJohns Hopkins University Press, 2007 and 2018.

Italian translation: Maria Gaetana Agnesi e il suo mondo: una vita tra scienza e carità. Carocci, 2020.

Articles & Essays

Foundational Anxieties, Modern Mathematics, and the Political Imagination. Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 June 2023.

Introduction (with Morgan Ames). Algorithmic Modernity: Mechanizing Thought and Action 1500-2000. Oxford University Press, 2023, 1-15. 

Newton in Italy. In H. Pulte and S. Mandelbrote (eds.), The Reception of Isaac Newton in Europe, Bloomsbury, 2019, 3 vols., 1:159-178.

"I Don't Really care. Do You?" Scientists in the Grey Zone in 1930s Italy, Los Angeles Review of Books, 8 July 2019.

Morgan Ames, Jason Oakes, Massimo Mazzotti, Marion Fourcade, Gretchen Gano (eds.), Special Issue: "Algorithms in Culture," Big Data & Society, January-June 2018.

The Rise and Fall of the FilosofessaLos Angeles Review of Books. 11 July 2018. Also in LARB Quarterly Journal, Spring 2018.

Algorithmic Life, Los Angeles Review of Books, 22 January 2017.

Per un sociologia degli algoritmi [For a Sociology of Algorithms], Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia, 2015, 56: 465-477.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God. In S. Lawrence and M. McCartney (eds.), Mathematicians and Their Gods: Interactions Between Mathematics and Religious Beliefs. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2015, 145-166.

Faking Galileo [online version], Los Angeles Review of Books — Quarterly Journal, Spring 2014.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Science and Mysticism. In J. Burson and U. Lehrer (eds.), Enlightenment and Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014, 291-310.

Rethinking Scientific Biography: The Enlightenment of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. In P. Govoni and Z. Franceschi (eds.), Writing About Lives in Science: (Auto)Biography, Gender, and Genre. Gottingen: V&R unipress, 2014, 117-137.

Il newtonianesimo e la scienza del Settecento, in Antonio Clericuzio and Saverio Ricci (eds.), Il contributo italiano alla storia del pensiero. Appendice VIII della Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, vol. 4: Scienze, Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 2013, 291-300.

Pensiero conservatore a scienze moderne a Napoli (1780-1830). In R. Mazzola (ed.), Le scienza a Napoli tra Illuminismo e Restaurazione, Naples: Aracne, 185-204, 2011.

Introductory essay to Impure Cultures: Interfacing Science, Technology, and Humanities. Bologna: University of Bologna – CIS, 2010, 5-18.

The Jesuit on the roof: observatory science, metaphysics and nation-building. In D. Aubin, C. Bigg, and O. Sibum (eds.), The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, 68-94.

Engineering the Neapolitan state. In E. Robson and J. Stedall (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 253-272.

Madame du Châtelet, académicienne de Bologne. In U. Kölvig and O. Courcelle (eds.), Émilie du Châtelet: éclairages et documents nouveaux, Fernay-Voltaire: Centre internationale d'etudes du XVIIIme siecle, 2008, 127-132.

The Two Newtons and Beyond [Essay review]. British Journal for the History of Science, 2007, 40: 105-111.

Scienza, fede, e carità. Il cattolicesimo illuminato di Maria Gaetana Agnesi. In R. Simili (ed), Scienza a due voci, Florence: Olschki, 2006, 13-37.

I significati della precisione. Per una storia socioculturale dell'astrofisica italiana. In P. Govoni (ed), Storia, scienza e società. Ricerche sulla scienza italiana di età moderna, Bologna: University of Bologna, 2006, 143-173.

Enlightened Mills. Mechanizing Olive Oil Manufacture in Mediterranean Europe. Technology and Culture, 2004, 45: 277-304.

Newton for Ladies. Gentility, gender and radical culture. British Journal for the History of Science, 2004, 37: 119-146.

Le savoir de l'ingénieur: mathématiques et politique a Naples sous le Bourbons. Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 2002, 141-42: 86-97.

The making of the modern engineer: analytic rationality and social change. History of Universities, 2002, 17: 121-161.

The Neapolitan school: studying pure geometry in the period of revolutions. In E. Knobloch and J. Mawhin (eds.), Studies in the history of mathematics dedicated to A.P. Youschkevitch, Turnhout: Brepols, 2002, 107-112

Maria Gaetana Agnesi: mathematics and the making of Catholic Enlightenment. Isis, 2001, 92: 657-683.

For science and for the Pope-king: writing the history of the exact sciences in nineteenth-century Rome. British Journal for the History of Science, 2000, 33: 257-282.

La professionalizzazione della matematica: dall'analisi settecentesca alla matematica pura. In M. Segala and F. Abbri (eds.), Il ruolo sociale della scienza, Florence: Olschki, 2000, 115-126.

L'immagine della scienza nel Bullettino di Baldassarre Boncompagni (1868-1887). Ricerche Storiche, 1999, 29: 495-521.

The geometers of God: mathematics and reaction in the Kingdom of Naples. Isis, 1998, 87: 678-701.

Public Engagement

Public Lectures

  • Forgotten Lady (Science Museum, Milano, 2018);
  • Faking Galileo (McLean Lecture, New York City, 2017);
  • The History of Mirrors (Exploratorium, San Francisco 2015);
  • The Culture of Design in Postwar Italy (San Francisco 2013);
  • Holocaust Remembrance Day: Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg (IIC, San Francisco, 2012);
  • Making Italian Science (San Francisco 2011).

Radio Programs

  • The Blockchain Revolution (Radio24, Italy, 2018);
  • Algorithmic Life (Stack and Flow Podcasts, 2017);
  • The Future of Scientific Research (Radio 24, Italy, 2010);
  • Madame du Chatelet (Radio France, 2006).


  • Olivetti Day (San Francisco 2012);
  • Madame du Chatelet. La femme des Lumieres (Biblioteque Nationale de France, Paris, 2006);
  • The Newtonian Moment (New York Public Library, 2004).


  • Hunting the Edge of Space (PBS - NOVA 2010).
  • Brunel: The Greatest Southerner (BBC1, 2004).


Feature Articles (Times Higher Education)

Professor Massimo Mazzotti


2209 Dwinelle Hall

Office Hours

Twitter: @maxmazzotti