Monday, 23 May 2011

Primary Maths; why everyone's illiterate.

The maths curriculum in this country is shocking really, as a child I realised that between the age of six and the age of twelve the algebra British children are presented with progresses from equations like “4 + ? = 10” or “2 × ? = 6” to the essentially equivalent problems such as “4+x=10” and “2x=6” among others which involve slightly larger numbers for the more able children such as “14x=196” or possibly the odd fraction. The essence of the maths is exactly the same with the only difference being the introduction of letters when we reach secondary school. This terrifies people; ‘algebra’ is so much scarier than simple ‘sums’, but if you rub out the ‘x’ and put a question mark in its place you’ll find yourself doing the same problems you were doing five years earlier in primary school.
There is absolutely no need for this, giving a five-year-old “4+x=10” will make no difference to giving him “4+_=10” as many five-year-olds are given all the time. An underscore, empty box or a question mark is conceptually the same as an x or y but mathematical illiteracy and dread prevails, the mention of words like ‘algebra’ and ‘calculus’ send a shiver down the spine of the average adult, including primary school teachers. They must be shown from a very young age that these words are not to be feared and that being able to recognise that an ‘x’ represents an unknown quantity is as basic as knowing the alphabet and being able to recognise an integral, a Fourier series or a Taylor expansion is analogous to recognising a simile, oxymoron or metaphor.
C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is as true today as it ever was but when papers like the Guardian and popular figures like Professor Brian Cox bring science to masses the border line between the two camps is somewhat shifted and blurred. We have the bizarre situation where everyone you see in the street is an expert on everything from the wonders of the Universe to climate change and hadron colliders but barely one percent of them could tell you the cosine rule, the science camp has very much extended its reach to fully incorporate the other culture but at the same time relegated mathematics to its own lonely fate with many actual scientists wondering around in the middle.
Maths is not like science, it is a language that has to be taught from a young age, just like Chinese or French. The numbers, symbols and operators are the letters, the equations are the sentences and the  theorems, lemmas and implications are the tools, much like the linguistic tools in a novelist’s tool box it is not necessary for the public to use them, just to understand them is quite enough.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Is there life on X? It doesn't matter!

Once again, after several weeks of drought, the New Scientist once again reports on mankind’s latest bold attempts to find life on other worlds. It amazes me that anyone can claim this wild goose chase is somehow a scientific endeavour; typically throughout history discoveries have been made by scientists as a prelude to the formulation of a final theory. Deciding that extra terrestrial life might exist and then launching effecting an effort to find it would be akin to Einstein thinking “You know, I don’t have any proof yet but I bet E=mc2.” and then proceeding to discover his theory of special relativity. Of course scientists often make predictions based on strong circumstantial evidence and established mathematical principles but I’m afraid that the Drake equation does not constitute either of these, it is a meaningless hypothetical thought exercise with no supporting evidence.
 I fully support exploration for exploration’s sake and am ever excited about space travel’s discoveries and the new technology it makes necessary. I marvel at the great achievements of science, at the awe-inspiring vastness of the cosmos and at the boundless possibilities that this presents. I do not support singling out one of these possibilities and making that the focus of research, astrobiologists are more like the Spaniards, searching tirelessly for gold with nothing else in mind, than a noble explorer discovering new lands simply for the sake of discovery and a respectful appreciation of nature’s infinite variety.
Let us boldly go where we haven’t before but not because we are looking for something specific but because we want to explore, discover and understand the Universe in all it’s splendour.