You're reading: Travels in a Mathematical World

What we call mathematics

I notice in the news is an issue of whether we should have a different name for early maths. It’s actually quite interesting – and quite a problem – the different things we call ‘mathematics’.

I remember when I went to uni to study maths my friend who’d dropped it at GCSE thought I’d be adding up huge columns of numbers. My friend who’d taken it to A-level patiently explained that that isn’t really what maths is, and in fact I’d be differentiating expressions with loads of terms in. Of course neither is correct! Since then I’ve thought it a problem that we use the same word for all these actually different things we call maths.

It’s related to the issue that people think all you can do with a maths degree is teach maths or be an accountant. This comes from what people think maths is. If you think it’s arithmetic supercharged, of course you think of finance roles only. If you want a creative problem-solver and you don’t realise what maths is, you might not expect a mathematician to be a useful person.

On the language side, my son learned phonics for a bit, now he does spelling and sometimes grammar. At my secondary school they had subjects called ‘English language’ and ‘English literature’. Can you imagine if my son’s spelling homework “write a sentence using words ending ‘il'” was called his “literature” homework? But his other homework this week “cut out these jugs and stick them in your book in order from the smallest amount to the largest” is called “maths” just like the ‘using tensors for relativity’ undergrad project for which I was one of the examiners this week. It’s easy to see how people can conflate things when we call them all the same thing.

This all brings to mind this quote from Jackie Stedall, which I use in my history of maths module.

When as a school teacher I found myself in a single morning delivering lessons on percentages, circle theorems, and differential calculus, I was forced to ask myself how this unlikely collection of topics had come together under the single heading of ‘mathematics’.

Jackie Stedall’s The History of Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction, p. 18.

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