It’s a phrase I’m sure almost every Maths student has heard. From friends, relatives – I’m just not a maths person.
This was an ethos that, up until recently, I actually echoed with. I was always the kid who churned through novels and pumped out essays comfortably. I sat with discomfort in maths classes, doing my homework but always directly from the textbook’s answer page. I remember proclaiming with glee at the end of the Year 10 exam period that I had just sat my last maths test ever.
It’s impossible to pinpoint one source of my early distaste of mathematics – it was not a mindset rooted in the insecurity of missing one important class from which all else followed, or having one bad teacher. I believe that I was my own sole adversary, and that I had convinced myself maths just wasn’t something I could do. The validation of being good at one thing, to the natural exclusion of the other.
I entered my senior years of high school with a full suite of English and Humanities courses, but threw Biology in the mix to be a little more well-rounded. To my surprise, I loved the course. I couldn’t let Biology go, so as I took the predictable path into Law, I also surprised many to add on a Science degree. It was here that I would face my old foe, laying dormant in the form of the compulsory ‘Foundational Studies in Mathematics’ – but this time around, I was ready to take on the challenge. I swallowed my pride, and spent the summer before university speed-running online algebra videos to fill the gaps I had obstinately shut out.
Somewhere along the way, doing practice problems became my favourite part of the week. It was simple mathematics, but it was elegant and precise. We scraped the surface of why the formulas worked, alluding to underlying truth of the universe, and I wanted to access the knowledge that could take me there.
In the years that followed, I became totally disillusioned with Law and took a gamble, switching to a single Science degree, majoring in Physics instead. I was ready for a challenge, and I got it. After some encouraging marks in higher level maths courses, I settled into my final degree arrangement, picking up a Bachelor of Mathematics as well to round out my crazy academic journey.
Moving towards both my graduation this year and my looming research career as a mathematical physicist, I must reflect. I understand when friends confide in me, now their ‘maths friend’, that they could never do what I do – because I honestly never thought I could do it, either. Ultimately, however, I reject the dichotomy that the phrase ‘maths person’ seems to innately construct, and think we as a community need to actively discourage use of the term. I think anybody with a love of knowledge, who is willing to inspect their foundations and fill gaps, can appreciate mathematics as I have grown to.
The University of Newcastle