Talking about maths on aesthetic terms might make it more appealing to reluctant teens
The mathematician G.H. Hardy had a lot to be sorry for. He dedicated his life to maths, a subject of negligible use and little glamour. In 1940, he published A Mathematician’s Apology, in which he defended his profession against precisely these complaints. Maths might not matter, but it was beautiful, it was stimulating and “There is nothing in the world which pleases even famous men . . . quite so much as to discover, or rediscover, a genuine mathematical theorem.”
If only I had read Hardy’s tract when I was studying maths at school. When I emerged as the only pupil to have chosen to combine A Levels in the arts and humanities with A Levels in maths and physics, my friends were wonderstruck. One of them told me that there were “two brains”, an “arts brain” and a “science brain”. Which did I have? It is with deep shame that I confess that I felt safer saying the former, because I had heard that to be science-brained was to be wired like a man.
I like to think that teenage girls today have enough sense and self-confidence to ignore such nonsense. That said, I am struck by how similarly many teenagers define themselves. I have visited a number of schools lately and lost count of how many pupils have told me that they are “arts people”, who want to do something creative with their lives. My suggestion to one girl that maths is highly creative was met with a polite but withering look.
It’s hardly surprising that proposals in the most recent Budget to make maths compulsory until the age of 18 were met with groans. Despite a number of initiatives to get more teenagers — and particularly girls — to take up science, maths continues to languish, unloved. I suspect that the sums aren’t enough. The subject is crying out for justification and context — something along the lines of Hardy’s book, which imaginatively and unexpectedly situates it alongside other disciplines, including creative arts.
Hardy wasn’t the first or the last mathematician to describe his work in artistic and aesthetic terms. In 1997, Jan Gullberg drew particular attention to “the cultural aspect of mathematics” in the foreword to his Mathematics from the Birth of Numbers.
Hardy’s apology is striking, though, for its boldness. He compared mathematicians to painters and poets as makers of patterns. A painter creates patterns with shapes and colours, a poet with words, a mathematician with ideas. Clearly not immune from the kind of superiority we all feel for our chosen subject, Hardy even argued that a mathematician’s patterns are likely to outlast a poet’s because “ideas wear less with time than words”.
His argument is far from infallible, but certainly succeeds in broadening the discipline beyond its stereotype. From asserting that “mathematicians as a class are not particularly distinguished for general ability or versatility,” he went on to introduce via an anecdote his colleague Bertrand Russell. Anyone familiar with Russell’s work will know that no one put the “math” in polymath quite as he did. His literary, philosophical and political interests make him precisely the kind of figure who might inspire young mathematicians at school.
One is tempted to believe that it’s impossible to picture maths’ dimensions without studying its biography. Studying its biography, moreover, might just give maths a dimension that self-professed “arts people” would find interesting.