I didn’t like maths, but just spent six weeks of my uni holidays doing mathematical research (specifically knot theory). A reflection on why some of us end up being passionate about maths and a thanks to someone who showed me how and why we love maths.
I certainly never hated maths. My earliest mathematical memory comes from when I was probably about four. My family and I had just moved to Brisbane, and we were staying with my grandparents. My grandparents would ritualistically watch the 7pm news report on the ABC and as most kids do, I was always following grandparents about. So, there I was sat on grandpa’s knee and the report cuts to Alan Kohler who is giving the finance report. Of course, as a four-year-old I didn’t have the first clue about what finance was but suddenly were numbers popping up on the screen with a blue arrow for up and a red arrow for down. Kohler was saying something about the iron ore price being up (great for Australia’s mining boom at the time) and he used a graph of the price to explain his point. While the numbers were okay, the graph was something I was kind of mesmerized by and even now I can’t tell you why. The only explanation I can give is that seeing that graph somehow connected with some mathematical inkling I had but just didn’t realise yet.
I won’t lie to you and say that from that moment on I developed some prodigious Gauss like talent for maths. For many years I just didn’t like maths. In both my year 7 and 8 school report cards my maths teachers described me as a well humored student, teacher speak for doesn’t listen or do any work in class (which was reflected in my grades).
But luckily when I was about 16, I became interested in Stephen Hawking, it was probably because there was a movie about him which had just come out at the time. So, I picked up a copy of his famous book titled, “A Brief History of Time”, and I really enjoyed it. I reread the relatively section about ten times and was fascinated by the fact that the universe was not so simple.
On a trip back to Brisbane (we had moved back to Melbourne in the intervening years) I expressed my newfound interest in physics to my grandpa, who is an accomplished physicist in his own right. He was pleased and showed me some papers he had recently published; these were covered in maths, and he explained how he turned physical problems into mathematical equations.
I realised if I wanted to be a physicist, I would have to learn maths. Now while my interest in physics waned, I soon came to love maths. It’s somewhat to clichéd to say this love is motivated by visions of mathematical beauty, but clichés are sometimes true.
Ultimately, maths and its various abstract concepts, hard to crack problems and beautiful proofs, ignited a passion, which I saw reflected in my grandpa’s explanation of his physics. In my experience you can’t teach someone to like maths, but you can show them how to (or maybe why to). So, thanks grandpa for showing me maths.