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A piece of Pi for the innumerate; or, physics can be phun

March 14, 2011

Today, Monday, was March 14th, which you could write as 3.14. Yes, it’s that date beloved of fun-loving mathematicians everywhere, Pi Day! By a happy coincidence, it was also Albert Einstein’s birthday. It seems an appropriate day, therefore, for Dancing Beastie to touch briefly on topics normally alien to these pages: maths and physics. Don’t go away, it won’t take long. Everything I know about these subjects could be written on the back of an envelope – which is sort of the point of this post.

Pi are squared - but this one is round! (Mathmos' joke.)

When I was a post-grad student, a friend of mine tried to introduce me to the joy of maths. (No sniggering at the back there.) We were both researching doctoral theses, but while mine was in history, his was in pure mathematics. Each of us was fired with enthusiasm about the wonders of our respective subjects and each of us enjoyed sharing our enthusiasm, via seminars and lectures, with academics and interested lay people alike. Unlike some mathmos I encountered at university, my friend was (is!) a, dare I say it, ‘normal’ guy and a good communicator. Yet he just could not explain his subject to me. It’s not that I was unwilling to learn, nor that he was a bad teacher: quite the opposite. I knew that there was a whole world of knowledge there that I was missing out on, and I was delighted to have the door held open for me by a sympathetic guide. For whatever reason, however, I was simply unable to follow him. To use another metaphor, he was speaking a foreign language, whose grammar and alphabet I could not begin to comprehend. Listening to his bright-eyed explanations and looking at his pages of indecipherable equations, I knew that I would have more hope of learning ancient Aramaic than I ever would of grasping the principles of mathematics. And I’m not much of a linguist, either.

6th Century Christian Aramaic script in the Codex Sinaticus Zosimi Rescriptus, MS 035 from

Now, doctoral level pure mathematics may not be the best place for the numerically-challenged to start, I do realise. I had tried to get in at beginners’ level. But maths was the subject I most disliked at school  – physics came a close second – not because I found it boring but because I was simply baffled by it. I was supposed to be bright: I was in the top divisions in all subjects. (I wonder how many of them I could manage now.) But I would sit in maths and physics classes almost in tears of frustration sometimes, as I watched the cogs in my classmates’ heads whirr and click and all the equations fall neatly into place for them. I could see that there was a symmetry and logic to the subjects which must be immensely satisfying – indeed beautiful – if you could grasp them. I wanted to grasp them, I tried, but what others found intuitive I found absolutely impenetrable. My brain just doesn’t seem to have a maths setting. Even now, I feel panicky at the sight of an accounts sheet, and the closest I can get to understanding the beauty of mathematics is to select some Bach on the iPod.

J.S.Bach, 6 part fugue: I can't play it, but at least I can enjoy listening

The point of mentioning my own numerical incompetence is not to flaunt it, for it’s nothing to be proud of. It is at best questionable whether one can consider oneself educated – however au fait one might be with Bach or Shakespeare (or indeed ancient Aramaic) – without a general knowledge of maths and science.  The point is that I am one of many, many people who, lacking the ‘maths setting’, were put off maths and physics at school, and who came to think that these entire areas of human knowledge were beyond their grasp or their interest. This morning I was listening to a discussion programme on the radio, in which physicist Brian Greene put the problem very neatly. To paraphrase, schools teach facts, because knowledge of facts can be tested. Fair enough. What inspires children though, as he went on to say, is the bigger picture. Is physics about mathematical equations, or about the extraordinary, multiplicitous wonders of the universe? Well, it’s about both, of course, but many’s the child whose early fascination with the starry heavens has been withered by having to work out forty applications of Ohm’s Law before break. The connection between the beauty ‘out there’ and the work ‘in here’ is lost. Whereas, if you encourage the fascination with the cosmos, you give children a reason to learn more of the detail within it. Without applicability, facts and equations are so much dust under the desk.

Just Wow: pictures from the Hubble telescope, thanks to people who stuck with maths and physics lessons at school.

To be fair to my school teachers, I do think that it was less their teaching than my ability (or lack of it) that led me down a mathematical dead end. It is pretty self-evident that some people have a facility for numbers which others lack, irrespective of innate intelligence; just as some people are musical and some are not. And I studied history not because it was easier than physics or maths (although to me it was), but because I found it more interesting. I have no hope of being a mathematician and no great wish to be a scientist. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to learn about them, though, or at least how they apply to the world around us.  There must be so many of us who wish we were better acquainted with these subjects, who are interested in a general way, but who find it almost impossible to teach ourselves.


A nice cup of tea and a little light reading: science books for non-scientists

It’s cheering, then, to see overtures being made from both sides of the great arts/science divide these days. The media, long dominated by humanities students, is coming to recognise the fundamental importance of the sciences, and there are scientists – Brian Cox being a shining example on television at the moment – who are doing their best to make the wonders of science evident to us lay people. Einstein tried it as far back as 1916: his book on the Special and General Theory of Relativity was specifically aimed at intelligent readers ‘who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics.’ Well, I am ashamed to admit that I have had the book for three years and have not yet got beyond chapter five.  (He does also say that the work ‘presumes…a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.’ Note to self: must try harder.)

Only twelve men can understand it? Well, that makes me feel a bit better. (Newspaper headline from 1921)

For those of us too impatient, weak-willed or (sorry, Professor Einstein) just plain tired to sit down at the end of the day and try to decipher books on quantum mechanics, television is a gift. Currently showing on BBC2, Brian Cox’s hour long programmes explaining crucial subjects like entropy, gravity and the periodic table are refreshingly accessible (and beautifully filmed). He makes the most of the visual medium, ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. I remember numbingly dull hours spent trying to learn the periodic table of the elements in school chemistry lessons, never guessing that it all had such thrilling relevance to the structure of the universe. Programmes like these, simplifying without patronising, are just what we inquisitive non-scientists have been waiting for. Professor Cox, you are the apple of my Pi.

Comfort Diner Pi Day, from

There are no other posts (yet) about science on Dancing Beastie! But you might enjoy ‘You know that dreaded question at parties? I have an answer! No, wait, I have two.’

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 6:20 am

    How I share your mathematical incomprehension! Similar tears of frustration at school. Top set in everything but maths, for which I was in the bottom set. That took some doing – there were 13 sets at my school! Had to resit O grade maths in order to meet university entrance requirements. Passed it with not one shred of understanding and not one shred of ‘knowledge’ retained to this day. Still count on my fingers. Have a 1st class Honours degree in French, with distinction in spoken French, and a PhD in French literature. How is it possible to be so lop-sided? Is it me or was it the teaching? My children have had much better teaching in Maths than I did, but interestingly son ‘gets’ maths, and is now studying engineering, and daughter doesn’t get maths, and wants to do a history degree. Son ‘got’ music theory, but daughter doesn’t – is a talented performer but scraped a required theory exam pass and will now have no more to do with it because ‘it’s like maths’.

    The musical or not is a whole other debate. My children learned violin and viola by the Suzuki method, which has as its premise that all children have musical talent. Having experienced it in action, I’m convinced that it’s true. Which leads us back to maths and teaching. I’m not saying I could have been a brillian mathematician, but I think with different teaching I could have reached some understanding. Have a look at ‘The Myth of Ability’, by John Mighton.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2011 11:29 pm

      Different teaching styles do of course have a bearing on whether or not a child’s imagination is fired by a given subject. But I think your own experience bears out my clumsy theory of the ‘maths setting’. I see the same in my own children: elder son has inherited his father’s facility with both numbers and music (theory and practice). I’d be interested to learn more about why these two abilities so often seem to go together: perhaps that’s one for the neurologists.
      The John Mighton book sounds interesting: I will indeed have a look. Thanks.

  2. March 15, 2011 9:08 am

    I was quite good at maths until I tried doing A’Level. I struggled through the first year and then gave up as all my other subjects were suffering. I now know that the problem was that I can’t rote learn. I have to understand something before I can apply it. My maths teacher wasn’t willing or able to explain the concepts to me. It makes me sad now because before this teacher I loved maths.

    Brian Cox is doing for physics what David Attenborough did for the natural sciences. He is so enthusiastic and passionate, you can’t helped but be swept along. His programmes should be shown in schools to fire up the kids to WANT to study science.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2011 11:33 pm

      Hah, you sound like me: I always want to know ‘why’ not just ‘what’! Makes us awkward people to have in class, I should think! 🙂

      You’re so right about these programmes. I do hope that they are being shown in schools. Physics certainly wasn’t like this when I were a lass…

  3. March 15, 2011 12:06 pm

    Thanks for the great heads up about the Brian Cox show, I’ll have a look. I always wish I knew more about science and math. It does feel like the people who can deal with those things easily are able to speak another language, as you said.

    When I was growing up I tested well on our annual tests and was put in “enhanced” classes all through. Me and my classmates were basically allowed to do whatever we wanted, with the assumption that we were clever and knew best how to teach ourselves. I spent a lot of time drawing and painting, but didn’t learn how write cursive, for example, until far later than other children, because no one showed me. One year our teacher decided we all were born with an innate knowledge of math or something, and so instead of math that year, we did clay animation! I managed to catch up in other subjects, but math and science are really not something you can teach yourself and I still always feel stupid where they are concerned.
    I really hope that was just an experimental phase in Canadian education, and that kids these days are being taught with a bit more structure, especially in these subjects. Although, to be fair, I guess some of the kids in my class really liked math and asked lots of questions and demanded extra exercises, with the result that they were doing advanced high school math at seven or eight years old. Maybe I can’t be too quick to pass the blame either…

    Anyway, I wish you very good luck with your reading! I hope that one day you make it over the wall into that elect universe of mathematicians and scientists!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2011 11:38 pm

      I have to say that I am horrified by the sound of your ‘education’! It sounds like everything you have achieved in life (including an exceptionally fine blog!) is in spite of it rather than because of it. To me it looks like neglect – but I guess it probably worked for some children…(?)

  4. March 15, 2011 12:10 pm

    Oh, and lovely teapot! (That probably did it, and now there will be a sign up in the mathematician universe barring me unequivocally.)

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2011 11:40 pm

      Thanks! Don’t lose hope, I like to think that there are some mathmos out there who can combine massive intellect with aesthetic appreciation! 😉

  5. Fiona permalink
    March 15, 2011 2:30 pm

    Planning to share this with Eilidh who, like her mother, finds Maths the least accessible of school subjects.
    By the way, don’t you think Prof. Cox’s lectures are packed out at university? Perhaps on account of the tempting aroma of Pi… Have you been following the debate about the use of music in his programmes?
    Will enjoy your blog. 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2011 11:45 pm

      Thank you for coming to visit!
      If there were a lecturer as inspiring as Brian Cox at my university, I’d have got myself out of bed for his lectures, for sure! I did hear there was a kerfuffle about the music – didn’t notice it being a problem myself but apparently they have turned it down now (to his disapproval, as he said on R4). There was a good piece at the end of last week’s programme.

  6. March 15, 2011 3:21 pm

    I positively loved Math and Science–until I hit senior year honors levels Calculus and Physics. Suddenly I went from feeling like I could do anything to struggling for a C. Suffice it to say that at University I focused on my real interests Language, Literature, Religion…and the maths and sciences fell by the wayside. I think it’s wonderful that children and adults alike can be engaged and learn with programs like these!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2011 11:48 pm

      I wonder if you can access the BBC’s programmes online. These are certainly worth a look.

      You got far further than me. I imagine that you must be one of the truly educated amongst us – numerate as well as literate! For the rest of us, there’s always the telly… 😉

      • March 16, 2011 7:19 pm

        I’m a big fan of the telly myself ;p Thanks for the tip about looking up the programs online. I shall definitely do so!

  7. hmunro permalink
    June 6, 2011 9:14 pm

    Wonderful post, dancingbeastie! I share your fascination with/inability to learn math. In fact, it was calculus that prevented me from being a doctor: I got to calculus and my brain just *stopped.* After a while I was forced to admit that my brain was physically incapable of grasping the concepts, no matter how well-explained. So I gave up and became a writer instead. By the way … what does it say about me that I tried to look up your post by date, but I started looking in May? Because Pi starts with a “5,” of course. Doh! 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      June 6, 2011 10:43 pm

      And it was physics that put paid to *my* ambition to study medicine! I wanted to be a doctor from age 5 onwards, but in the end just couldn’t face another three years of sciences. But, oh my goodness, to be able to say ‘I became a writer instead’ so nonchalantly makes me breathless with awe (and maybe a teensy bit of jealousy). You have my deepest respect! [bows]


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