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Why maths matters – with puzzles by Dr Tom Crawford

Why maths matters – with puzzles by Dr Tom Crawford

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5 min read

Maths is integral to our everyday lives – so why don’t we pay it enough attention? Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden says more mathematicians are needed – in Parliament and beyond

Maths is all around us.

If you’re enjoying the summer of sport, then consider how much maths you’re consuming. That might be just the numbers that make up a football score, or the angles that Emma Raducanu has to recognise in a split second in order to send back the perfect volley, or the calculations and algorithms that underpin Hawkeye’s decision whether Joe Root is out or not.

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If you’re just enjoying the summer for the first time since Covid struck in spring 2020, then you’re benefitting from the maths that modelled the outbreak and that was crucial to developing, then rolling out, a vaccine.

The mathematical sciences are a British success story. This was brought home to me when I hosted a dinner recently under the auspices of the Protect Pure Maths campaign. Representatives from business and academia joined politicians for an illuminating and challenging discussion. One guest suggested that anyone who wants to sit in Parliament ought to pass a basic maths exam first. I’m not sure I can get behind that particular ask, but it speaks to one of the issues that maths faces just now, and which the Protect Pure Maths campaign was set up to take on.

Before the campaign was established exactly a year ago, maths had been hardly mentioned in Parliament for years. But those of us charged with making, passing, amending or opposing legislation ought to understand just how much maths provides the bedrock on which our modern society is built. For example, think of the encryptions that keep credit cards and the contents of smartphones safe. 

 

With a contribution of more than £200bn to the UK economy, the mathematical sciences contribute around 10 per cent of GDP. A healthy supply of mathematicians is fundamental to an economy and society that function efficiently to the benefit of all.

And they will provide the great technological innovations of the future whether that be driverless cars, new vaccine technology, or quantum computers.

I made my own contribution to raising the profile of maths in a House of Lords debate on the topic when I pointed out that: “Maths should be fun.”

As a former teacher of languages, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to get students to consider foundational grammar rules as enthralling. But as the grammar of sciences, we must do more to make mathematics engaging and fun. 

Too often maths is seen as particularly difficult; a realm for lone geniuses. Some people are even boastful of their lack of mathematical capabilities. But as president of the London Mathematical Society (LMS) Professor Ulrike Tillmann recently told the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee: “Mathematics is something that, once you understand, is actually easy. It is illuminating and empowering.”

 

While maths remains the most popular A-Level, the subject has a pipeline problem. If the United Kingdom wants to continue as a world-leading maths superpower, we’ve got to make sure that interest in mathematics at all levels of education – from primary to post-doctoral – does not wane.

First, it needs to draw from a wider pool. Too many people are put off because they don’t see themselves fitting the model of a mathematician – women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and some people belonging to ethnic minorities. Four of the UK’s learned mathematical societies are currently led by women. Given only around 12 per cent of maths professors are women, that makes each of them all the more remarkable, and more admirable, as role models. 

Secondly, it needs to act to stop talent falling away from the pipeline, whether that be women who need support mid-career or those that just can’t see a career in maths. In fact maths graduates go into a huge range of jobs – some of the biggest employers of mathematicians are the security services, the NHS, and our largest retailers.

This government has signalled it understands the importance of maths. In January 2020 ministers announced £300m of additional funding for the subject. But there are increasingly alarming signs that the administration is going to renege on that pledge. More than £100m has been delivered. But the rest is necessary to fund study programmes that last years to a conclusion. 

Of course every penny counts in the current climate. But investing in maths has the potential to repay that investment in spades. It’s just not always obvious where the pay off is going to come.

Back in the 1930s, Alan Turing was juggling numbers and wrestling with the Riemann Hypothesis. Just a few years later his mind, that was steeped in pure maths, would prove crucial in unpicking the Enigma Code – a measure that saved countless lives and shortened the Second World War.

The UK is a maths superpower. But it will only remain so with careful stewarding of the talent pipeline that can power British business, underpin a successful society, and lead to new understandings of the world we all share.

 

 

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