Oxford Bulletin: Changing Opinions on Maths

“Maths is boring, serious, and of no use to me in everyday life”

This is an opinion I’m sure most of us have heard at one point or another in our lives, and also one that I’m trying my best to change. When I first launched ‘Tom Rocks Maths’ in 2017, it was with the goal of tackling the following three issues, and even now with over 10 million YouTube views on the channel, it still feels as though my work is only just beginning…

Maths is boring. This statement often comes from people whose memories of maths are tied to their stereotypical school maths teacher – tweed jacket and all. I’ve always been told that I don’t look like a mathematician, and whilst I do understand where this notion comes from, it also feels inherently wrong. There isn’t a ‘typical’ mathematician. As with all other subjects, we come from a range of backgrounds and have a range of interests and personalities. I’m hoping that by putting mine out there – including my taste for tattoos and rock music – the world can see this first hand.

I don’t use maths in everyday life. One of the small silver linings of the pandemic has been the increased awareness of mathematical modelling and the role it plays in society. Whilst the usefulness of disease models is still a hotly debated topic, at the very least people are beginning to realise that maths is a tool which we can use to aid decision making. Whether that’s at the level of government policy on climate change, or where to aim when taking a penalty kick (if only the England men’s team had listened before the EURO 2020 final), highlighting such real-world applications is incredibly important in the battle against arithmophobia (the fear of maths). 

Maths is too serious. When you have a subject that can be traced back to a set of 8 rules or axioms on which everything else is built, it’s quite easy to see it as very strict and regulated. But, as I’m sure any practicing mathematician will tell you, it can be one of the most creative subjects out there, constantly requiring ‘out of the box’ thinking to solve a problem. The issue of course is getting people to engage in the first place, in order to be able to see this for themselves. My approach as the ‘Naked Mathematician’ is simple – if I do maths in my underwear, how can anyone take it seriously? It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as several of my YouTube commenters have put it: “Shirtless math is not what I wanted to see until I saw it and now I only want this”.

My methods might not be the most orthodox, but whatever we’ve tried in the past hasn’t worked, so why not take a leaf out of the mathematician’s notebook, and try some ‘out of the box’ thinking? Maybe one day maths will be seen as fun, creative and a tool we can utilise to help solve the world’s problems.

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