Mathematics is indisputably the greatest subject in the world
“Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die [but] mathematical ideas do not.”
This quote comes from one of the greatest British mathematicians of all time – G.H. Hardy. It would not surprise me if Hardy’s view was that mathematics is indisputably the greatest subject in the world. This view is one with which I totally agree. Too many times I hear people telling me that they “are no good at mathematics” as if it were a badge of honour! Would we be so proud to say that “we are illiterate!”. As a nation we should be proud of mathematics and our mathematicians.
It can be argued that mathematics is part of our history, our culture and our future. A former Prime Minister once said:
“If countries are going to win in the global race and children compete and get the best jobs, you need mathematicians and scientists – pure and simple.”
Mathematics is a beautiful and powerful subject; it is the poetry of logical ideas. What other subject is the foundation of science, engineering, technology and artificial intelligence? It influences the structure of art and music. Mathematics teaches geography to geographers, economics to economists and physics to physicists. Mathematics is truly a global phenomenon.
The definition of mathematics is the science of structure, order, and relation that has creatively evolved from elemental practices of counting, measuring, and describing the shapes of objects
The most interesting part of this definition is the phrase creatively evolved. Mathematics is not a cold mechanical subject where we learn by rote and the answer is always right or wrong. As the definition implies, mathematics is a creative evolving subject. No matter at which level you use it.
The British pure mathematician, Andrew Wiles, worked on the hardest problem in mathematics (Fermat Last Theorem) for seven years in the 1980/90s, and employed a creative way that eventually solved it.
Today, mathematics teachers up and down this country use innovative ways to inspire and teach pupils, embracing technology whilst communicating their passion for the subject!
Nevertheless, some argue that mathematics has it limits and can’t be used on real world problems, Albert Einstein once said:
“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
I do disagree with Albert Einstein to a certain extent. Where the laws of mathematics break down, are not fit for purpose or where knowledge is incomplete, through mathematical modelling mathematicians have then challenged themselves to finding that elusive solution.
Without computers and advanced technology, where knowledge is incomplete, mathematicians in the past have used mathematical models to discover Black Holes and even discovered the planet Neptune.
With computers and advanced technology, where knowledge is incomplete, mathematicians in the past have used mathematical models to develop the delta wing for Concorde (the fastest passenger jet in the world), created a cost capability trade off model to provide evidence that the HMS Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier should be built, or developed a crowd dynamics simulation to increase safety at new football stadiums and public events.
In saying this I do more agree with this view Albert Einstein has of mathematics:
“How cam it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?”
Today we are faced with global challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change. Mathematics/mathematical modelling will have an important part to play in resolving these. This could even be the next generation of mathematicians building on the work that we do today.
It is important that we train and support our mathematicians at whatever stage they are at in their career, so we can tackle this and future challenges.
In schools, how can we impart a passion for mathematics to the pupils?
The British mathematician Sir John Kingman once said:
“Mathematicians are better if they stay a bit childish and play the game as a game. This is the key to teaching mathematics, it’s not to flood people with practical problems, rather it’s to say that this is the best game that has ever been invented. It beats Monopoly, it beats chess and it happens that it can enable you to land rockets on the moon. The real mathematical advances have been made by people who just loved it.”
Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician depicted in the 2017 film “Hidden Figures”, is a good example of this.
For the mathematician themselves, one can only truly appreciate mathematics, by getting right in the middle of the challenging intellectual arena, to constantly pursue and conquer the logical battle for that elusive truth. One of the most influential and universal mathematicians of the 19th and early 20th century, David Hilbert, once said:
“Distance in four dimensions means nothing to the layman. Even four-dimensional space is wholly beyond ordinary imagination. But the mathematician is not called upon to struggle with the bounds of imagination, but only with the limitations of his logical faculties.”
He goes on to say:
“A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first [person] whom you meet on the street.”
As a mathematical community we recognise the importance of communicating our ideas to the general public in a way that it is transparent and challengeable. It’s important for us to break down barriers to non-mathematicians, but in return we like non-mathematicians to listen and to challenge our opinions. This is the way we all mutually grow together.
So, in conclusion; mathematics is indisputably the greatest subject in the world! Why? Because it is the language of the world. Mathematics crosses racial, geographical and cultural boundaries. The real mathematical advances, as stated by Sir John Kingman, have been made by people who just loved it.
I am not asking us all to love it but let’s us all appreciate mathematics. Why? Because our country needs it.
‘Reproduced by permission of the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee, publishers of Science in Parliament, its quarterly journal.
To access further articles please go to: www.scienceinparliament.org.uk ‘