Making Maths Count
The beauty of maths
“I just think it’s beautiful.” That’s Prof. Tara Brendle’s view of maths. Here she explains how mathematical thinking is used in all we do, and how it appears to be a subject with a special place in the hearts of taxi drivers.
For me maths has always been about patterns. What first drew me to the subject was how visual it is. I just think it’s beautiful.
As a mathematician, based at the University of Glasgow, the fact I love maths won’t surprise anyone. But having said that it wasn’t a completely smooth road and that’s an important message I want to get across to people who aren’t enjoying maths right now. I went to school in the US and mostly liked all school for a long time. But when I was in the equivalent to secondary school I really went off maths for a while.
I had some spectacular teachers along the way, but looking back part of my problem with maths was I somehow had the wrong idea that it’s only about calculations and not inherently interesting in its own right.
When I started university I was made up against majoring in maths, but because of what else I was studying I was required to take a course in it. At that point it was just a tool and something I had to get through, but my academic advisor tricked me into taking a more advanced course – and that was me hooked.
I had found maths’ creative side. It is most definitely not just about memorising formulas.
In my early career the highlights were the courses where we were just exploring ideas and concepts. I loved the logic and reasoning. I loved geometry. Anything visual appealed to me.
Logic and reasoning are what I now call the language of maths. I love the insistence on definitions. What does a word actually mean and how do you express that? I really believe we need to teach children early on how to embed logic into their solutions to problems.
If we instead have children thinking it’s just about memorising formulas and doing calculations you’re unlikely to end up with young people who are confident with maths. Children need to learn why something works, not just be told that it does work and that you need to memorise it and use it.
As a child you can get told that some people are really good at maths and some just aren’t. It was fine for me as I kept being told I was good at it. But it instills this inaccurate idea that you’re either born with the ability to do maths or you’re not. Anybody can learn to do maths and that’s been reinforced for me throughout my career by the sheer variety of people I’ve met from all types of backgrounds.
Some of these stereotypes are also reinforced by the media, where there’s an overarching impression given that to be good at maths you have to be slightly odd and lock yourself away from the world. Maths is in fact very collaborative and you meet and work with all kinds of people.
I’m lucky in that I think people stereotype me less as the “lock yourself away” type because I’m a woman doing mathematics – so that’s already blown one of the main stereotypes people have and it resets their ideas at that point. But saying that I’d like to get to a point where being a woman in maths isn’t seen as unusual, and increasing the number of girls entering the field is vital.
However, most of the time you say you’re a mathematician you do get a negative reaction. People often don’t have nice things to say about their experiences of maths – apart from taxi drivers. I take quite a lot of taxis when I travel for work and it’s interesting that almost all of them will say they were good at maths and liked it. I think that’s interesting as much of what they do is based around choosing the best route for a journey, whether that’s the fastest, the most fuel efficient or the shortest distance.
It may just be a total coincidence that all the taxi drivers I meet like maths – I haven’t researched it – but there does seem to be a natural link there. It’s a good example of where people are using maths without realising they’re doing it. Using logic to take decisions – for me that’s what mathematics is and that’s why it’s fundamental in all our lives.
Tara Brendle, a member of the Making Maths Count expert group, is a Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, at the University of Glasgow, focusing on the field of geometric group theory. Prof. Brendle acts as the Edinburgh Mathematical Society’s representative to the London Mathematical Society’s Women in Mathematics Committee and is a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland (YAS).