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A Maths Evangelist

August 1, 2012

I have always liked numbers.

I like the patterns that can be found in them: primes, powers, Fibonacci numbers, perfect numbers (yes, there are such things).

I like the mathematical equations that describe relations between numbers: Pythagoras theorem, Fermat’s last theorem, Mersenne primes, Diophantine equations (only whole numbers), calculus.

I like the (sometimes deeply unexpected) interconnections between numbers that appear over and over in these equations e.g. 1, 0, -1, √2, π, e, i.
(My favourite is eiπ = -1, but perhaps more of that another time.)

I like the shapes and images that are the visual representation of some of these patterns: triangles, pentominoes (like dominoes, but with 5 squares; there are 12 of them), pyramids, Möbius strips (a piece of paper with only one side – really), the Mandelbrot set (look it up – it’s wonderful), hexagons, flexagons (look them up too!).

I like the games we can play with these notions, such as with dice, coins, cards and paper.

I could go on and on…

Somehow though, I find myself in a small club. Our cultural response to maths (to the extent we have one) is, very commonly, one of “I can’t do maths”. More ominously, behind this is the largely unspoken, but nearly always understood “I don’t want to do maths”. Of course, parents (sometimes even teachers) communicate their mathophobia very effectively to the up and coming generation – that maths is mostly hard, much of it useless and nearly always boring.

Actually, quite a lot of maths is easy to understand, if approached in the right way. And it is both useful and beautiful in the same way that music and art is – each discipline provides a way of viewing, of describing the world around us that otherwise may only be hinted at.

So, especially to the school students I tutor, I have taken on the task of spreading the good word about maths. Now, when I first meet a student, I am quite upfront in telling them – absolutely truthfully – that they already understand and can do more maths than they give themselves credit for, and sometimes more than their parents (and even perhaps their teachers) give them credit for.

For some students, this remains 80% of what I do with them. After all, if someone believes he or she cannot do maths, then this will be absolutely correct. On the other hand, if they believe that they can do maths then, just maybe, they can.

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