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Nobel week – a place for mathematics?

In a blog post last week, Alex Bellos said:

It is often said that the reason Alfred Nobel did not endow one of his prizes in mathematics was because his wife was having an affair with a mathematician.
While this story has been debunked it is nevertheless frustrating to mathematicians, especially during Nobel week, that the noblest of the sciences is ignored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

As an alternative, Alex offers the Mental Calculation World Cup.

A while ago, I wrote a flippant little piece in which I claimed that “Most of the Nobel Prizes are for Mathematics“. While perfectly valid and interesting mathematics takes place within mathematics itself, it is an interesting aspect of mathematics that its applications take place on the boundaries with, or even within, other disciplines. This creates some issues for those championing mathematics. Some people would like to assess the economic impact of mathematics but this is a difficult task. At what point does an application of mathematics belong to science, engineering or technology?

The point of the IMA Mathematics Matters series of articles, as I understand it, is to show where modern mathematics research has had its impact, even though that impact may be “perfectly hidden in its physical manifestation”. Some people would take the result of a piece of research to be “not mathematics” as soon as it finds an application. Unfortunately, defining a piece of work as ‘not mathematics’ as soon as it is applied is a way to ensure that all measures of economic value of the impact of mathematics are zero; yet it is clearly the case that much of science, engineering and technology would be naught without the mathematics that underpins it.

This is a balance we try to strike when finding stories for the Math/Maths Podcast; many interesting stories, and certainly those more likely to be written up by university press offices or the media, are those which apply mathematics in some other area. How far do we follow a story before declaring it “not mathematics” and turning our attention elsewhere?

It is with this mindset that I view the Nobel Prizes. Much of the work for which the prizes are awarded is underpinned by mathematics. I see ‘Nobel week’ as an opportunity for mathematicians to go in search of the mathematics behind each prize, rather than to retreat and complain about the lack of a prize specifically for mathematics.

Surds: what are they good for?

Here is a question I was asked:

Why is rearranging equations containing square roots on the curriculum for GCSE? What might it be useful for in later life?

This is a two-part question, one part of which is dynamite. When I put the question to Twitter, Paul Taylor @aPaulTaylor was the first to take the bait:

Is usefulness in later life a necessary condition for inclusion on the GCSE curriculum?

Let’s set that aside for now. Whether usefulness is necessary or not, asking what a topic might be useful for in later life is a perfectly valid question for a fourteen year old who is being asked to study that topic.

Surds is one of those confusing areas that I vaguely remember but have to look at a definition to recall properly. The BBC GCSE Bitesize website has “a square root which cannot be reduced to a whole number” and says “you need to be able to simplify expressions involving surds”. Rearranging surds, then, is the business of noticing that the square root of 12 multiplied by the square root of 3 can be combined to give the square root of 36, which is 6.

Surds, then, are a part of general algebraic fluency. I expected, therefore, that one answer would be that this is the kind of manipulation that helps generally with higher mathematics; though I wonder when such neat numbers arise in reality. I also expected to hear that surds were useful in very efficient computation. I remember once speaking to someone who was programming computers to go on board aeroplanes. These had very limited computing power and needed to work in real time; the programming involved all sorts of mental arithmetic tricks to minimise the complexity of calculations.

For the latter, I am not sure how relevant this is to modern engineering or programming. For the former, it might be that we are including this for every student at GCSE simply as part of the algebraic fluency that we hope of from incoming mathematics students at university. When I put the question to Twitter, two responses reflected my cynicism on this point. When are surds useful in later life?

Other, less cynical responses, were available. Early responses:

  • Ian Robinson ‏@IanRobinson said: “it allows you to work with precise fractional values without rounding errors in calculations. Useful for engineering etc.”
    Later, Colin Beveridge @icecolbeveridge suggested something similar: “in computing, roots are expensive — if you can consolidate them, you save computing time.”
    This rings true for me but it was a mathematically-inclined structural engineer who asked the original question. Is this really used in engineering?
  • Christian Perfect @christianp said “anything involving making rectangles” thinking particularly of “carpentry and landscaping“.

I put these suggestions – rounding errors and rectangles – to Twitter.

John Read ‏@johndavidread said (tweet 1; tweet 2):

I think it’s unlikely anyone doing practical work would need the accuracy. Feels more pure Maths than Applied. But is it used? For engineers, landscape, carpentry etc expansion to a few decimal places so you can measure to reasonable accuracy is fine.

Carol Randall ‏@Caro_lann said: “engineering isn’t just measurement! There’s lots of heavy maths involved in getting a B.Eng (and beyond).”

John Read ‏@johndavidread asked: “where in Maths do equations with square roots come up that you’d want to simplify without calculating numerical value?”

To this, Daniel Colquitt ‏@danielcolquitt wrote what on Twitter must be considered an essay, a four tweet message (1, 2, 3, 4):

Very simple examples: Computing the eigenfrequencies of beams, or reciprocal lattice vectors & hence in various Fourier transforms. In this case, exact form is required, decimal expansion will not do. For the beam example, a numerical value can be computed for a given set of parameters, but if you want to know that frequency for *any* set of parameters, you need to know how to hand surds.

On algebraic fluency, Christine Corbett ‏@corbett_inc suggested “the umbrella of ‘simplifying equations'”.

To this, John Read ‏@johndavidread asked: “but then why not teach it as ‘simplifying equations’? No kid had heard of a surd in the 1980’s”.

Daniel Colquitt ‏@danielcolquitt replied: “For GCSE & roots of reals >0, I would tend to agree with you. Complex roots are somewhat different”.

But we’ve swayed back rather close to the dynamite, haven’t we? I’ll stop there.

My sense is that I haven’t had a satisfactory answer really. This sort of rearrangement is good for building up the background knowledge of the undergraduate mathematics student or perhaps engineering student, but no one seems to be claiming they are an engineer who uses this outside of the classroom. No one seems to have claimed this topic develops mathematical thinking in an interesting way, or that engineers who don’t think they are using it really are relying on it in the black box of software, or that the topic somehow contributes to an appreciation of the beauty of mathematics in the teenagers who are learning it. (This may be due to my experiences and the experiences of those who have replied, or the way I have misinterpreted their words.) It may be that there’s a bunch of stuff on the GCSE syllabus just for those who go onto A-level or degree-level mathematics, and perhaps that’s fine, but it would be nice to have a more satisfying answer to give. So, dear reader, are you satisfied with these answers? Do you have a better answer?

"I’m not a mathematician, the maths I’m doing is really just basic modelling"

Last week I attended the first Institute of Mathematics and its Applications Employers’ Forum. The theme was ‘Employability of Mathematics Graduates’. This was an interesting event with many useful views and viewpoints on display.

One speaker, talking about how mathematics student applicants to the graduate training scheme fare, mentioned that during the technical interview some such applicants seem to expect that they will be asked detailed questions about their final year modules. In fact, the questions asked are more like A-level mechanics and this trips up many students. This chimes with a problem I’ve thought about previously about attitudes to mathematics from mathematicians.

I have noticed that many graduate mathematicians who work in mathematical jobs will tell me “I’m not a mathematician, the maths I’m doing is really just basic modelling”. Students and graduates (including, if I think back, me when I graduated) seem to think that if the mathematics they are doing after graduation isn’t at least as hard as final year undergraduate mathematics, then it can’t be ‘real mathematics’ and they can’t be a ‘real mathematician’. As they haven’t moved onto a higher degree to do more advanced mathematics, they must have failed as mathematicians.

I came across this problem somewhat when I worked for the IMA because someone who doesn’t consider themselves a mathematician might ask: since I’m no longer a mathematician, why would I join the mathematicians’ professional body?

I think it is terribly sad when graduates think this. I must be careful here: of course there is more advanced applied mathematics but many graduates find themselves applying fairly basic mathematics to problems and therefore think that they have regressed to an earlier stage of their mathematical development. This rigorously hierarchical view of mathematics – particularly from people who are using mathematics to make a substantial contribution – seems to me to be a real shame. In fact, final year undergraduate mathematics is pretty far up the tree – so far, if we continue the analogy, that it can’t support very many people – but it’s hard to appreciate this when, to overuse the analogy, you’re only looking at the few academic researchers balancing on higher branches.

“If I apply for a job using mathematics, they must want to quiz me about what I learned at the culmination of my degree. And since they’re asking me questions about forces and moments using techniques from A-level, then this can’t be real mathematics and I can’t be a real mathematician.” It’s a real problem.

This is part of where I think the value lies in the IMA series of conferences for the ‘Early Career Mathematician’. Since many mathematicians in industry think of themselves as ‘someone who used to do mathematics’ and may well be the only mathematics graduate in their team/department/company, it can be a very powerful experience to come together and meet others in similar positions. If you’ll excuse a small plug, I am chairing the next of these conferences, the IMA Early Career Mathematicians’ Autumn Conference 2012, in Greenwich in November. Registration is now open. Come along!

I told you so: Relatively Prime has begun

Do you remember when I told you why I supported Relatively Prime and you should too? I said:

Samuel is an enthusiastic communicator of mathematics and has the technical skills to make an excellent producer of content. You may have enjoyed what he does as my co-host on the Math/Maths Podcast, or his interview show Strongly Connected Components, or his irreverent maths chat show Combinations and Permutations. Much as these are good outputs, they all have an element of being as good as they be in spare time. I don’t know about you, but of the two options on his crossroads I would like to live in a world where Samuel can take his enthusiasm and technical expertise and spend some serious time concerning himself with mathematics communication.

Well, now is my chance to say “I told you so”. Following that amazing day when I told you that next time you wake up, Relatively Prime will be a missed opportunity unless you act, 159 people donated to make the project a reality and Samuel has spent 11 months doing the work: travelling the world, recording interviews and editing (so much editing).

Now he has released the first episode of this eight-part audio documentary series. And it’s good!

The Toolbox
The mathematics that we all learn in school is great. No, really, it is. How can anyone get through life without knowing how to add or subtract. Multiply or divide. Solve for an unknown or factor a polynomial. OK, you might be able to get through life without that last one, but the point still stands, the mathematics that we all learn in school is great.  It isn’t everything though. There are a lot of other tools that mathematics has to offer that could enrich people’s lives. On this episode Samuel Hansen rummages through his mathematical tool box and showcases three tools he feel are going to be very important in the coming years.

The series will run until 5th November, with a new episode being released every Monday. (And I hear the completion of his achievement will be marked with national fireworks.) The show is available to download directly at the show’s website, but don’t forget to subscribe through iTunes or through the RSS Feed.

Plus it’s a chance to check how well he stuck to those hints he gave about Relatively Prime content, and tease him about the inevitable changes of plan!

To teach, must I principally research?

A couple of weeks ago at the HE STEM Conference I saw a keynote lecture by Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. During a questions session following this, I was surprised to be handed the microphone but apparently I had raised my hand. I asked a question. Quite a number of people approached me during the remaining day-and-a-half of the conference to say what a good question it had been so I thought I would share it here.

Sir Alan had spoken about the challenges facing STEM in HE and about the legacy of the National HE STEM Programme. On the latter, reflecting the hope that much of the HE STEM activity will develop into ongoing practice in universities, he said he hoped we wouldn’t think of this as the end but as a beginning. He also spoke about challenges affecting the sector in terms of Goverment initiatives and other factors, and the important of teaching and learning, research, etc. When I was handed the microphone I said into this something like the following.

I was interested that you spoke about looking to the future. I work for a former Higher Education Academy Subject Centre on a project funded by the National HE STEM Programme. So my contract ends tomorrow1. I aspire to being a lecturer who takes a professional research interest in his teaching but almost every job advert I read has number 1 ‘a PhD in mathematics’ and number 2 ‘ability to bring in research income’. So, while I shouldn’t ask such a personal question, I suppose I’m asking: should I acquire a research topic or plan a different career?

I’m afraid that extreme nervousness has made what happened next a bit of a blur. I certainly don’t feel like I got a satisfactory answer and several of the people who congratulated me on my question said as much to me. Perhaps someone who was there will be able to fill in more of the details via the comments.

He, quite rightly, addressed the general point rather than my specific circumstances. He certainly spoke about some universities increasingly making available career routes – both hiring new people and allowing for promotion – based on merit attached to teaching activities, and suggested that I might need to ‘shop around’ to find an institution to suit me. This is true, in that I aware of departments more friendly to my aims and I sometimes meet people who are employed as Teaching Fellows or similar who talk of promotion possibilities linked to teaching achievements. However, the norm is still to hire a researcher who, begrudgingly, indifferently or happily, is required to teach as a secondary objective. This is what I was getting at with my job advert for the University of Excellence.

I should be clear that I am not against mathematical research in any way. It’s just that I am drawn to the challenge of helping people to understand something about mathematics and its applications, and I feel that people who are willing to spend their time and energy on better teaching, outreach, educational research, etc. should have a more prominent place in the system.

1. These are both programmes formally funded by HEFCE so really I was making an unfair swipe here. I hope it didn’t make me seem too much the disgruntled ex-employee but I was a little frustrated at the suggestion that the expiry of the funding for my employment should be viewed as an exciting new beginning.

Video interview show with the researchers behind the science & maths news

Samuel Hansen has started a new initiative. ACMEScience News Now offers video interviews with researchers involved in new science and mathematics research. In the first episode Samuel talks to Paul Hines of the University of Vermont about his research into using crowdsourcing to not only answer scientific questions, but also to help determine what those questions should be. This work was announced in a press release in mid-August and the video was released nine days later, so this is fast work offering access to researchers as they announce their research.

You can view the video below. Subscribe to the ACMEScience News Now YouTube channel for more.