You're reading: Thoughts of a Maths Enthusiast

Am I a Mathematician?

I describe myself in my mini-bio as a Maths Enthusiast, Egyptologist and Streetdancer. Can I upgrade myself from Maths Enthusiast to Mathematician?

The answer to this question is a cultural one. We can put aside the question of whether mathematics itself is ‘real’ or not. The names we give to the people that do maths, and how they are organised and paid for is an entirely societal and cultural question. For me, the question of how mathematicians are recruited, trained and regarded by society should be one of the main research goals of the history of mathematics.

My membership of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications is at the affiliate level.  Anyone can join at this level; you’ve just got to want to.  My degree and professional experience is not suitably mathematical to warrant membership at a higher grade.  So according to a professional body I can’t really call myself a mathematician, although they would certainly agree that I was an enthusiast.

Yet in my professional life I am seen as a maths expert. When schools in my region are looking for something exciting to do with maths they get referred to me. I have even written a book about encouraging gifted pupils in mathematics. Is this just because I can talk a good talk and write good funding applications, or is there something else going on?

I work with the STEM ambassadors programme, I work with teachers on what they can use STEM ambassadors for in schools and I am always trying to sign up interesting people to the scheme. There are tens of thousands of people signed up across the UK.  Ambassadors select their own expertise when they sign up for the scheme and only 5% of those people chose mathematics (the choices being Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Where are all the mathematicians?

Even amongst highly trained professionals there is a reticence to identify as a mathematician and an expert on the subject. Why? The reasons are many and complex, but it has to be partly cultural and about how we see ourselves. The mathematician’s love of the abstract and penchant for arcane symbols marks the in-group from the out-group. It is enchanting to some, excluding for others.

I have no problem calling myself a street dancer, although you’re not going to see me on a stage anytime soon. My greatest achievement in dancing is to be highly commended in my silver medal exam. Enthusiasm and time spent in a dance studio is enough, it’s not just based on ability. So yes, I do think I’m allowed to call myself a mathematician. The enthusiasm is certainly there, I’ve flung my arms around wildly to explain something, and more than one beer mat has sacrificed its life in the pursuit of a better diagram. I spent time over the weekend learning how to work out the square root of a polynomial (go on – test me!). This is why I am comfortable calling myself a mathematician, it is through the company I keep and the culture I am steeped in.

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