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Review: Why Study Mathematics, by Vicky Neale

Vicky Neale on Twitter: "My new book "Why Study Mathematics?" is published  today! It's designed for students considering a maths degree, and their  teachers and families. @LPPbooks and I would love it

In fact, St Andrews offered a French for Scientists course, so I ended up doing Maths with French. A win all round.

I can pinpoint the exact moment it became clear I would study maths at university. Parents’ evening, year 12, I mentioned to my French teacher that I was thinking about a French degree. He looked at me as if I was stupid and said something like “you’re good at French, but you’re GOOD at maths. Besides, a French degree isn’t much use.” Alright, fine. Maths it is. He was spot-on. I never looked back.

For others, the decision about whether to study maths is less clear-cut. For those people, Why Study Mathematics is an extremely useful tool in making an informed decision. In the first part, Neale looks at the ins and outs of a maths degree — what you’ll study, how courses differ, how students differ, and where it can take you; the second part takes a deeper look at the kinds of things a mathematician thinks about.

I think the early sections on the different flavours of maths degrees are especially valuable: up to A-level, Mathematics looks like a bit of a monolith and (almost) everyone covers (almost) the same material. Setting out that (almost) every maths degree will cover some linear algebra and some calculus but beyond that it’s a free-for-all prepares students for the wide range of courses available, and for the sometimes baffling decisions that need to be made.

The one thing I felt was missing from the book was a section on reasons not to study mathematics. It’s a tricky thing: we want mathematicians! We want everyone to know and love maths! Evangelising about its beauty and rewards is absolutely right — but at the same time, maths isn’t for everyone, and picking the wrong subject, or doing it for the wrong reasons, can be a ticket to misery.

Why Study Mathematics is tremendously engaging and clearly-written (I enjoyed Neale’s first book, Closing the Gap, for the same reasons). The author articulates her enthusiasm for the subject beautifully, and it takes an inordinate amount of work to make it look so effortless.

I say it would make an excellent gift for the mathematically-inclined teenager in your life, and an invaluable addition to any school library.

Why Study Mathematics?, on the LPP website

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