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Stereotype-abiding mathematicians of the world, unite!

Recently I wrote a post, Mathematicians are people too, about the image problem of mathematicians and called for examples of mathematicians who do not fit the traditional stereotype.

On Google+, Christian Perfect said:

ok, so, as an autistic white male mathematician, I’m going to steer clear.

I said that as a glasses-wearing, bearded white man, I didn’t feel much use either. Christian replied:

so: stereotype-abiding mathematicians band together to reassure public that mathematicians don’t necessarily conform to the stereotype.
That’s the kind of logic only mathematicians would appreciate.

I also received this comment from Twitter user @sebmr2:

Didn’t Galois do enough to break stereotypes for me to fit them?

I don’t think all mathematicians should personally break the stereotype. I remember some years ago I was working in a university mathematics department and someone had pinned up a newspaper comment piece in the staff room about how lecturers should dress in sharp suits like businessmen if they want to give the right impression to their students. I don’t agree with this.

However, my call for examples was written from another viewpoint. Not: can I, as someone who studied mathematics at university, adapt myself to avoid the stereotype. Instead: what if I was faced with a class of students, many of whom would never fit the stereotype (by virtue of their ethnicity or gender, for example)? I would want my class to believe that they too could be mathematicians, yet if they think all mathematicians conform to a certain ‘type’ then this is a barrier to them seeing themselves in this way. Particularly as it is obviously an incorrect stereotype.

So I am interested in breaking stereotypes not to change you, dear reader, but to better inspire others.

To finish, I would like to share a video suggested on Google+ by David Roberts. The video of Nalini Joshi is by Trixie Barretto, who says of it:

There’s a mathematician six floors above me where I work. I’d never had much to do with her, but I’d heard she’d had an unusual childhood in Burma, and grew up to become the first female professor of mathematics at the university where we both work. One day on Twitter she wrote, “Maths is in my heart,” a sentiment both alien and amusing to me, being someone who’s terrible with numbers. It stayed with me though, and later that afternoon I knocked on her door and asked if she’d tell me her story.

Mathematicians are people too

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 mathematiciansAda 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.

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