What is Maths for?

There have been a flurry of blogs (and plethora of tweets) on maths recently. This, from @LearningSpy, this from thequirkyteacher (as recommended by @oldandrewuk), are recent offerings. Maths is a marmite subject…..some people love it, and most people seem to hate it (maybe the binary nature of it – either right or wrong – intimidates people?). There are indications that parents’ bad experiences with maths at school significantly colour their children’s attitudes to maths when they get to school….and a suggestion that all the family should be introduced to the delights of mathematics together (!). Some attention has focused in blogs and tweets on whether children should have learnt their times tables to automaticity by the end of primary school. Personally, this sounds like a no brainer, but it did get me thinking about my own mathematics education…..

I am a professional scientist…(and a physical scientist)….and so Maths has always featured highly in my life. I do remember struggling with negative numbers, and being flummoxed by the concept of complex numbers…but, I took O level, AO level, A level and Special paper Maths, and A level Further Maths, and did a year of Maths for Physical Scientists at University. But, I didn’t really like Maths. I wanted to be a Physicist, and was advised that Maths was pretty important for Physics (which it is). The physics thing didn’t work out. That’s a lot of maths qualifications. And, I was very good at it, too. However, I always knew that I wasn’t really a mathematician (which the University Maths confirmed without any ambiguity)……I wasn’t thrilled by it, and knew that there was something important about it that I didn’t really see.

By the time I had reached A levels, of course, Maths wasn’t really about numbers (or the four basic operations). Also, calculators had arrived. By the time I started making my living from science my calculator was always used for arithmetic. Mental maths (never my strong point) withered, and I even ‘forgot’ my times tables….I simply didn’t have use for them. This changed when my own kids arrived in primary school. They needed to learn their times tables, and the only place with enough time or authority to achieve that was at home. Constant practice, constant questioning. They learnt them, and I relearnt them!

Maths is a funny old subject. Spectacularly useful (around the shops, and around the home) even at a fairly low level of sophistication. Essential for science (even Biology). And at a very sophisticated level, able to unlock mysteries of space and time. This should be recognised by all parents, and study of it should be respected. But, love for it isn’t required to learn what needs to be learnt, or to encourage others to do likewise. Most people can get along quite reasonably without Chemistry (alas), but not without a rapid working knowledge of basic mathematically operations.


3 thoughts on “What is Maths for?

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      I see what you mean, and, of course, I know that maths at a very high level is abstract and ‘researchy’ rather than right or wrong. But, for most students it is like this…even when there are many different ways of reaching the answer, there is usually still one right answer. I think that this might be intimidating….and certainly is not the case for many other subjects which are comparatively fuzzy….


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