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Mathematicians are people too

Last Saturday in the Telegraph there was a feature announcing the start of a numeracy campaign: Make Britain Count. This included an article by Rachel Riley about “the stigma around maths“. She writes about the “image problem” of maths and numeracy:

I’m a blonde Essex girl, so I’m well used to being talked down to, but when I tell people I did a degree in mathematics at Oriel College, Oxford, I see their jaws hitting the floor. Mathematicians labour under a negative stereotype – older men in anoraks with beards and glasses. Maths isn’t sexy. 

She talks about problems of attitude and relevance to the real world, and the need for creative teaching to

teach children number skills from first principles. They have to know the underlying “why” of maths, not just memorise the formulas.

Let’s talk a little about the issue of the image of mathematicians. Last night on Twitter I was approached by user @philhumpo, a teacher from Exeter, with this query: “I need a ‘top 5 crazy mathematicians’ (duelling Romans, drowning kittens etc).”

This sort of thing concerns me. I wondered in what sense he meant “crazy”. Mathematics can seem to have an association with mental illness in popular culture and so I’m naturally concerned if “crazy” is being handled sensitively. Also, many of the interesting historical anecdotes turn out to be false or exaggerated, an issue touched on in my previous post.

Thankfully, it was just an issue of the brevity of messages on Twitter. Phil explained the heart of the problem. It’s the last day of term today and Phil has his class of 15 year olds for a shortened lesson. He has discovered many of them think “all mathematicians are grey suit baldies with social problems” and hopes to disabuse them of this view.

With the reference to duelling mathematicians, Phil is clearly aware of Évariste Galois, who clearly has a romantic and stereotype-breaking story. Ramanujan is another good story. You can find online biographies of women mathematiciansAda Lovelace, Mary Somerville and Sophie Germain are typical examples, though there are many more.

I also wondered about more contemporary sources. Recently I came across a photo blog “This is what a scientist looks like” via the @HESTEM Twitter feed. A quick search reveals just one mathematician featured so far. As Phil put it “hmmm… not a duelling Frenchman but not a grey suited baldy that’s for sure”.

I recommended Katie Steckles’ video Playing Games with Squares. Katie certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype and the video shows her having fun with mathematics.

There are a host of careers profiles from a range of different people in the Maths Careers Career profiles, where just scrolling down the page gives an idea of some of the stereotype-breaking people involved with mathematics, and a similar list is available with the Plus Careers Interviews.

I am sure there are countless more examples of mathematicians breaking the mold – mathematicians really are people too! – and I’ve only had a quick think about it. Perhaps you can suggest your favourites in the comments.

4 Responses to “Mathematicians are people too”

  1. Nathan Van Maastricht

    I’m from Australia and I know the mathematicians at my university deal with the coal chains by doing some operations research for them, so basically making them more efficient and deciding if buying new equipment is a good idea etc. This means that they essentially control hundreds of millions of dollars. When I was a primary or high school student and posed the question “How much money do you think you could control as a mathematician?” I would have been totally blown away when it was that high. I assume others would have a similar view.

    What about changing the view of mathematics rather then changing the view of mathematicians? For example:

    I think a “race” to do a calculation would be inspirational to some students. They would take about 20 seconds to do a simple multiplication, then you tell them that the computer they use in a computer lab does millions of those same problems in a second would be shocking. Of course this would need to be done with younger students who haven’t had as much education about what computers actually are. This may lead to new algorithms for factoring, determining primality, or even calculating pi.

    Also videos by Vi Hart are rather interesting and are probably aimed at older students. I feel they show how diversified mathematics has become, it’s not simply finding x, as I know a lot of my peers in high school thought it was.

    And to finish, a small collection of unsolved problems which are simple to understand to show that mathematics isn’t “finished,” there is plenty of stuff nobody knows. The idea of being the first person ever to know something is a very attractive idea and just might motivate someone who may go on to prove a problem they hear about which is unsolved. I know my driving force has been unsolved problems and wanting to know the answers to them, or at least be able to read the answers when they are found. It would be amazing to be the person to find them though.

    Reply
  2. Kelly

    Flipping this is even more helpful ‘people are mathematicians too’. So many people think they don’t do maths when that’s actually inescapable. If more people believed they do maths more people can believe they can be mathematicians.

    Reply

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