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Monday, 22 February 2010

Einstein A GoGo

Hansard, Parliament’s official record of debate ,detailed a remarkable debate on Quadratic Equations proposed by Mr. Tony McWalter, the member for Hemel Hempstead, on June 26, 2003.

A couple of months earlier Mr. Bladen the president of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers union had suggested that mathematics might be dropped as a compulsory subject by pupils at the age of 14. In an interview on the BBC’s flagship "Today" programme he cited the quadratic equation as an example of the sort of irrelevant topic that pupils study.

Tony McWalter had hoped that the Government would have issued an immediate rebuttal to what he called an ignorant suggestion. None was forthcoming and he saw it as his duty to scotch the idea, before it became common currency, that mathematics had no place in the modern world.

Some people might see the member for Hemel Hempstead as a harsh taskmaster, for he argued that because something was difficult or complicated that was no reason to drop it or ignore it. He acknowledged that many people, young and old, on seeing an algebraic equation would throw their hands up in the air and reach for a cold drink. But he favoured David Hume’s observation that most people have a sufficient disposition toward idleness to want to avoid excessive labour if possible. It was not the part of a teacher to encourage that disposition. He made the important point that although our society was more and more depended on scientific knowledge and application, fewer and fewer of our society had the wherewithal to understand it.

In the debate, he drew out from the discussion of Quadratic Equations, the history of scientific endeavour ranging from Euclid to Galileo, the loss of the knowledge of metal ore smelting, known to the ancient Romans but lost 800 years later. From acceleration to gravity, the fundamental sections of a cone – giving us the circle, parabola, ellipse and hyperbola and the square of the hypotenuse. Quadratic equations generate all these.

I will quote in full a part of this debate:

“The mathematical materials of modern science and engineering were laid down by the ancient Greeks, and to tell students that they need not attend to any of these ideas is not merely to deprive them of the ideas that predate Galileo, it is to provide them with an education that neglects entirely the whole post-Hellenic edifice of human scientific culture. The Greeks thought that people were divided into those who could understand at least as far as proposition 47 of book I of Euclid's "Elements". Anyone who could get beyond that was not an ass. They called that proposition the pons asinorum—the asses' bridge. One way of looking at the quadratic equation might be to say that it is the pons asinorum of modern science….. it is powerful educational medicine to come to understand that something that can be expressed very simply can be extraordinarily difficult to solve. Much of modern culture tends the other way. People are presented with enormously difficult problems in politics or economics, for example—I have already mentioned the euro debate—and they assume that such problems have a simple and comprehensible solution. The quadratic equation can teach us to be humble.”

Making things easy, allowing people to give up at the first hint of difficulty was not kindness. Leaving people behind, without the skills, tools or knowledge to investigate the more complex, more difficult aspects of mathematics locks them out; excludes them from our scientific based society.

The Government Minister in replying to the motion made a robust defence of the Government’s efforts to ensure that mathematics wasn’t relegated to the minor leagues… by quoting a raft of statistics about participation and examination success rates. But they’d got the message. The recruitment of maths teachers had been intensified with enhanced salaries for maths graduates. The irony was that at the time of the debate and for years after the best science graduates were being recruited by the financial sector to construct ingenious and complex financial models that supported the exotic products being devised. And we know where that got us. Now the risk is that as a result of the financial and fiscal meltdown it’ll be harder to adequately fund the teaching of mathematics and science in the years to come.

Which brings me to the Millennium Mathematic Project; a maths education initiative for ages 5 to 19 and the general public. It aims to support maths education and promote the development of mathematical skills and understanding and helping everyone share in the excitement and to understand the importance of mathematics.It brings together a wide range of different approaches and programmes which seek to ignite, inspire and mentor children and adults in the fascinating world of maths.

One exciting example is the “+ Plus Magazine” which relates the application of maths to everyday life. maths in the lottery, maths behind health and medicine and maths as a career. Take a look at “101 uses of a quadratic equation”. Take a deep breath and enjoy.

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