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 mathematicians – Ada 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.