What not to say to a mathematician at a party

Whenever Ben tells a stranger at a party he’s a mathematician the response is usually something like, “I hated maths at school”. It’s a very common response but if you changed the word “maths” to something else it’s also a very odd response. Imagine telling someone you’re a florist and they respond with, “I hate arranging flowers” or a nurse, “I hate caring for people”, or a teacher, “I hate teaching others”. But people have no hesitation saying it about maths to a mathematician.

After the wedding last week there was a party at my sister’s home and Ben found himself having a conversation with a marine engineer who took the opportunity to tell him how all the maths he did at University was a complete waste of time and he’s never used it. He wanted to blame Ben for forcing the undergraduate version of himself to do maths at University. He then explained what his work involves and there was a lot of problem solving which required logic and analysis. Ben then replied that this is exactly how he tries to get his undergraduates to think: to solve problems by thinking about them logically.

There’s a great article in the Guardian this week by Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician at Oxford University, about making maths work for everyone. I have met Marcus a couple of times and he’s really nice and interesting to talk to. He’s very involved with taking maths to the public and making it accessible for everyone and has written some good books for non-mathematicians about maths. He’d like to see every young person study mathematics up to the age of 18, a plan I heartily support. People think mathematics is just numbers and tricky equations but it’s much more than this. Indeed I occasionally peek at the papers my husband writes and they’re full of words rather than equations. Marcus’ suggestion is to introduce this aspect of mathematics into the school curriculum.

What many are not aware of is that maths is so much more than the technical cogs that currently form the backbone of the curriculum. It is about pattern searching, extended analytical and logical thinking, problem solving. I am just embarking on making a new programme for the BBC about the beauty of algorithms. Many of the best algorithms contain no numbers or equations at all, but are full of mathematical thinking. And it is those algorithms that are creating efficient approaches to a whole range of business solutions, from the distribution of goods from supermarket warehouses to decisions about flight schedules at Heathrow airport.

I am not particularly good at numbers and equations but I took a course on discrete mathematics at university as part of my computer science degree and I loved it. There was a great deal of logic in it. Problem solving through logic and analysis are important skills for every profession and I think society can only benefit if all young people are given the opportunity to develop these skills.

24 responses to “What not to say to a mathematician at a party”

  1. I used to teach maths comparing it to language allowing pupils to see how the words worked together and how their ‘grammar’ worked. Seemed to help kids who had been turned off. Also used music while they worked after reading some research. Pop music was better than classical though.

    • Music is a good way to get kids interested in maths and I’ve seen people give lectures on music and maths and the relationship between the two.

  2. The only way to create interest in mathematics is to elaborate how math is relevant to day to day life, but unfortunately most curriculum designers miss this vital link. Also the enthusiasm and the ability of teachers to make the math concepts easy and relevant matters as well.

    I loved math for two years of my intermediate education where my teachers made it easy and fun. So I was able to enjoy solving equations although I had no idea how they mattered in the real world.

    I wish I had the learning tools like Khan Academy, http://betterexplained.com/ etc. when I was in school about 15 years ago!

    • Yes, I agree that it can help if you explain why learning about maths is important to young people although I don’t always thing it’s necessary for it to have relevance to everyday life. We don’t always know how something might useful before we’ve discovered it.

  3. I thought I was good at maths till I went to Cambridge…

    An interesting way of establishing relevance could be through the application of maths to computer programming – after all, computer programming is maths, and there are an awful lot of jobs that involve understanding this these days. Plus, I think that they can help massively with visualisation of that the equations are actually doing; certainly helps me a lot.

    • Yes, computer science is really just maths and I think the very first university computer science departments consisted of mathematicians. But I don’t think it’s necessary to provide applications of maths to spark interest in kids. There are interesting problems that have no known practical applications. I might be a bit biased though 🙂

  4. I love maths and numbers – my Dad was a maths teacher and my kids are great at maths too. But – I had an uphill battle here in SA, where everyone, schools included, seemed to have the attitude that girls can’t do maths or science! It is high time this changed.
    And my sympathies to Ben 🙂

    • Ah, that’s a shame. Were they male teachers or did female maths teachers also have this attitude? I never felt that at all at school or at home and it was just always expected that if you worked hard you could do well, regardless of gender.

      • All genders of teachers, tho I must say, they did try in later years to instill an enjoyment of maths, but as a friend of my daughter said, she and maths parted company when they introduced ‘x’! 🙂

  5. “I hated maths at school”

    That is a typical response. When I was still forced to say that I was a physicist, I used to get the reply: I also always found that difficult.

    No proficiency in empathy being displayed there.

    The best part is the “also”. There are many things I find difficult, which may be the things this person finds easy, but high-school physics is not on my list of difficult things. 🙂

    • There’s lots of maths in physics. I enjoyed high school physics, although I found it hard and had to work hard at it, and my teacher always used to say that maths is the tool for physics.

  6. Took me a while see maths as beautiful. Now I realise Fermat and Fibonacci were onto something. I even write a poem about fractals recently. Let’s hear it for equality for mathematicians, the last undiscovered discrimination alongside lefties and pogonophiles.

  7. First of all, I loved Math (until University–but I am not blaming your husband for that–My professor was good and patient when I came to office hours to get a better handle on it–Taylor series, nearly killed me.)
    More interestingly, whenever I am at a party and I tell people I am an English teacher they ask me what book I am teaching–then I have to explain that I am an ESL teacher actually…..and then the people slowly drift away–okay, some flat out run. Either way, it is a very disheartening time.
    Would I rather debate the usefulness of the subject? Yes. Seeing people just bolt away is terrible.

    • I’m surprised that people bolt away when they hear you’re an ESL teacher. I think English is quite fascinating and learning it as a second language must be quite challenging because there are so many inconsistencies in English.

  8. I taught undergraduate computer programming courses for almost 7 years. The courses were all about solving business related problems. I was surprised how many students found the courses difficult but later understood they didn’t have sufficient background in math and logic. To be a successful programmer you need to love solving problems. Girls, I am told, do more poorly at math. Make certain your daughter keeps up her skills, although with a Dad as a mathematician, that shouldn’t bet difficult 🙂

    • Elizabeth is really good at maths and better than Daniel was when he was her age. Daniel is good at it too but he wasn’t quite as quick when he was 5. I think some people do have a natural aptitude for it but I still think all young people can benefit from doing maths for a couple of extra years.

  9. Hi Rachel!

    There is so much truth in your post. And being a biologist I really had to laugh about the marine biologist’s reaction. It is absolutely typical. So many biologists think their math and physics lesson were useless. But there are a lot of patterns and concepts in biological systems as well. And to be honest; a lecture about ants can also be considered useless by a marine biologist. And after all, biologists could not publish papers without using the precious statistics.

    Have a great day, Ilka

    • It was actually a marine engineer rather than a biologist but I think it still holds true because, as you say, there are plenty of patterns and mathematical concepts in the biological sciences as well.

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