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Why Should Penguins Care About Maths?

penguin maths

I regularly review resources written for pupils and teachers that in some way aim to support or extend Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. The most recent campaign in the UK is the Your Life campaign and as usual it has a website with short articles designed for teachers and pupils to browse and be inspired.

Imagine my excitement when one of the articles was called “Why Do Penguins Care About Maths?”. Two of my favourite things together in one article, there was even a video. I imagined something about penguins going North, then East then South on their quest for fish and ending up close to where they started. How does the problem change for a beady-eyed Rockhopper over a majestic (but slightly ridiculous) Emperor? How far does a penguin swim anyway? How do you map three-dimensional movement as it glides up and down under the water? So many possibilities for penguins and maths.

Is History Important?

In the novel I, Claudius, Robert Graves imagines a conversation between three Roman historians: Claudius, Livy and Pollio. After a long argument involving moral decline and sulphurous sheep, the young Claudius comes to the conclusion that:

“…There are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue, the other is to compel men to truth”

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.

Early Memories

One of my earliest memories is being woken up very early and sitting on the sofa under a blanket to watch telly. This was a treat. We were never allowed to watch telly in the morning and it was almost as if we were watching telly in bed. Fantastic. On the telly were some people with bad shirts standing in front of some weird symbols and talking a lot to the camera.

Yep, my dad had got us up before dawn so that we could watch an OU maths lecture as a family. When I later asked him what it was all about over my cornflakes, he got out our child’s sized blackboard and drew some triangles all over it to demonstrate Pythagoras’s theorem.

30 something years later and I still remember this as a great experience, and not just because I got to sit under a blanket watching telly.

This early memory explains a lot about why I find Maths Jam so relaxing. We’re forced to get up too early on a Sunday morning by Colin, because he’s so blown away by the maths and he wants everyone to have a go. There’s a board with a load of symbols on that I don’t always fully understand, but always someone close to hand who will explain them to you if you just ask. It doesn’t matter if you still haven’t understood all of it. I know more now than when I started and made some friends in the process.

All we need is Maths Jam issue blankets.

Thinking Mathematically

After this year’s Maths Jam weekend, Liz Hind said she wished she had a blog. Now she does! We welcome Liz to The Aperiodical and her new column, Thoughts of a Maths Enthusiast.

At Maths Jam I surprised several people when I told them I didn’t have a maths degree. Why was this surprising? They expected everyone at Maths Jam to have one? I’m not alone in not having a maths degree at Maths Jam and I don’t think that was the reason.

A good maths education is important because it teaches you how to approach a problem, think about it objectively and break it down. It turns out I’m good at thinking about Zombie Dice and with a glass of wine (and maybe a hint or two) I can solve difficult cube puzzles. It certainly demonstrates my mathematical thinking skills.

I’m also remembered for my talks on ancient Egyptian mathematics. While the mathematical content of these talks never goes much beyond GCSE level stuff, it does rely on a real understanding of what maths is and how it relates to being human.

Does that make me a mathematician? I’m not sure. I’m certainly a maths enthusiast with a lot of thoughts. I look forward to sharing some of them with you.