Why Learn Maths

Just before Easter I ran a session for the A Level mathematics groups in the Harris Academy group in South East London. I can tell you it was pretty daunting in the small hall, but with something like 120 sixth form students, who had chosen me over another talk, about options, I think. However, can I publicly thank (a) the teachers at Harris Crystal Palace who invited me and most especially (b) the students who attended for reminding me what fun it is to talk about maths to young people. I’ll be applying for a teaching job again, next …

Truth is, that even if you have chosen to take A Level maths (as all of the students had), doesn’t mean that it’s because you just love the subject … maybe it’s becuase someone told you that people with maths A level earn on average 10% more than other A levels (which they do see here), but I thought I’d push harder and found out that those clever RSA people who are behind internet cryptography (why people don’t steal your credit card details online) whose algorithm essentially relies on the difficulty of finding large factors af really large numbers, sold their company for $2.1 billion in 2006 (see here) or the $100,000 payout for finding the first 12-million-digit prime number (there’s $150,000 for the next milestone … 100 million digits) see here.

But really, the big argument is, well frankly, maths is amazing. The number 1 is the basis of measurement … size relies on a unit. The invention of the zero making decimal place value possible was described by John Barrow thus ” The Indian system of counting has been the most successful intellectual innovation ever made on our planet. It has spread and been adopted almost universally, ….. It constitutes the nearest thing we have to a universal language.” If you solve linear and quadratic equations you gradually require more sophisticated numbers to describe the solutions try x+1=3 (counting numbers), then x+5=3 (integers), then 2x=5 (rationals), then x²=2 (irrationals), then x²=1 (irrationals), so we need the number i  to solve this last oh so simple equation. We can find the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle and find it is an irrational we call π . Finally, we can find that the exponential equation whose differential is the same as the function has as its base another irrational we call e.

And from all of these disparate sources we find that e+1=0. You can get wedding rings with that engraved on them! WOW. Two students were heard discussing whether they would want one for their wedding and it was a tied vote!

The students listened and engaged and reacted and that was great. My message was that we should study maths because it is a fantastic subject and, up to a point at least, I think these thoughtful, engaging young people could go with that.

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