01 October 2004

Count me in: maths for the wider public

Charlotte, a 17 year-old student on a vocational childcare course, volunteered out of ecological and humanitarian idealism for an environmental study. With only a very hazy and biased idea of the issues involved, and having three times failed to get a 'C' grade in GCSE maths, she wasn't a promising candidate for anything more than manual contributions. Yet she cracked one of the three main scientific problems encountered.

Aaron, a self-taught independent film-maker with a blissfully maths-free past, made a documentary within a production plant belonging to a large multinational corporation. Fascinated by an intractable problem deriving from the industrial process that had been explained on camera, he spent some of his off-duty time on it - and provided the insight which led to its resolution.

Parveaz, a hairdresser turned temporary secretary in a medical school, was afraid of appearing incompetent. Unable to decipher some passages in hand-written mathematical script that she had been asked to type up, she tried to puzzle it out on her own, using her one year of college maths. She gave up and took the problem to one of the school's epidemiologists who, checking her work against that in the manuscript, realised that an early and fundamental mistake in an important study had never been corrected.

I could go on, but these anecdotes will suffice. The common factor in each case was the availability, to someone who would not normally access it, of mathematical software.

Before you make the obvious retort; no, I am not suggesting that powerful software does away with the need for mathematical knowledge, understanding, or experience. There will always have to be expertise to make appropriate use of intuition. However, from an initial position of scepticism, I now believe powerful mathematical software can tap deep wells of unused human potential. Not on the off-chance that employees can be exploited above their pay grade; rather, to bring mathematics into line with what is happening to other cultural tools.

Most areas of life in technologically enabled societies have been democratised by progress. Just 150 years ago, most people in those societies couldn't read or write; today, anyone can publish their ideas worldwide. My four-year-old grandson may not be the next Rembrandt, but with a cheap camera he can keep visual records that Dürer would have died for.

In mathematics, though... what? [

No comments: