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.