3.18.12

Weapons of maths communication

Negotiating the percentage button on a calculator is the height of mathematical complexity that most of us are likely to encounter.

Calculating jokes

A deep-rooted dislike of mathematics, bordering on loathing, is cultivated at GCSE and festers in the left side of the brain where mentions of long division or Pythagoras make it flare up and order the mouth to utter, “I never was any good at maths.”

I was good at maths. I dedicated more of my life to the noble art of mathematics than most with a degree in the subject. I see those three years much like Picasso’s Blue Period – with fewer prostitutes and beggars, but just as many drunks. And maths is an art. The precision, elegance and indisputable truth of mathematical proofs can match fine art in philosophical, if not visual, aesthetics.

Maths may not be pretty, even though it has (uncountably) infinite applications in the real world. So we all love maths, deep down. But here’s the clincher: would you go to a maths museum?

You do the maths*

There are a fair few mathematicians who are banking that you would. UK number advocates have bracketed themselves around a campaign to elevate their subject to the same level as music and art – by opening a maths museum. The endeavour follows a trend that started in New York, which has just opened the imaginatively named MoMath(s), or Museum of Mathematics.

Although finding a niche market is usually tricky, Maths World UK has created its own. Apart from the occasional travelling mathemagician, the only maths exhibition space among our fair isles is a small annex in London’s Science Museum. The cases house a few cabinets of retro calculators and one-sided glass vases.

Other European countries fare better, with Germany boasting four institutions with hands-on exhibits, including the thrillingly titled Maths Adventure Land.

Problem to be solved

The UK’s numeracy skills are in decline on the global scale and a recent report published by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills indicated that nearly one-quarter of the English population would have difficulty counting to 1,000. Whether through inability or boredom, though, the report doesn’t say.

And that is the crux of the problem with opening a maths museum: only those with an (in)vested interest in maths would visit. Although a meeting at Kings College London announcing the project was well attended by people involved in maths education, industry and politics, the non-mathematical contingent were noticeable by their absence.

One obstacle faced by a physical museum is the abstract nature of maths. Although applicable to a plethora of fields from photo editing to gastronomy, the pure form has minimal visual or tactile output.

“Exhibits are not the priority at the moment,” says Sara Santos, who works at the Royal Institution to promote mathematics. One of the main coordinators of the project, Santos has the ambitious aim of making the museum a cultural destination to rival London’s art galleries, history museums and music concerts.

“We all cheer for our athletes and identify with those who stretch the boundaries of physical achievement,” she says. “Mathematics stretches the boundaries of what our brain can conquer, what our brain can understand. [The museum would be] very much a legacy for all of us.”

Maths puts the graph into graphics

Summing in the city

Santos is well practised in attempting to engage the general public with mathematics. Maths Busking, established in March 2010, has the unenviable task of entertaining a “passive and often indifferent audience” about maths, using number tricks and rope entanglements.

With the maths museum, Santos may have her work cut out for her with unexpected critics such as Simon Singh. The author, journalist and cryptography expert is, in true scientific style, sceptical about the project. “I’d rather see the mathematics section of the Science Museum be brilliant,” he explains.

According to Singh, and I agree, ploughing money into a new project means the Science Museum “gets away” with having a “shoddy” maths section.

Bringing maths to people is one thing, but bringing people to the maths is an altogether different challenge. Not to be dissuaded, those on Santos’ team are enthusiastic. It is generally agreed that maths has an underrepresented stake in the cultural circuit relative to its impact on society and only those with verve and vigour will be able to rectify this.

So far the project has been an admirable effort to coax a crucial component of civilisation out from the Mathematical Cabinet. I’m skeptical about the museum because it’s likely to echo its subject: brilliant in concept but tricky to solve.

*Maths. Not math. See Peep Show Season 2 Episode 4, 4:06.

Photo credit: brandoncripps on Flickr