Maths, rules and creativity

I’m a chemical engineer. I’m ok at maths – competent but not a natural like this guy with whom I went to secondary school. Nevertheless, I have written a book on mathematical modelling. The book is not all that advanced – it mainly contains calculus and ordinary differential equations – but I’m kind of proud of it. I think the writing of it was the most creative period of my career and that creativity was based on sitting down with a blank page and solving engineering problems of a particular kind year after year.

So when I heard maths guru, Jo Boaler, say this: “Maths should not be about rules, and right or wrong answers, and mindless memorisation but about creativity and ideas”,  I was a bit baffled. I’ve read Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets, and I found it very creative in the sense that the author seemed to have a rare ability to make arithmetic far more complicated than it needs to be. Like that scene in Father Ted where Ted roars at Dougal “play the effing note”, I wanted to shout “just learn the effing rules!”.

So I’m on the side of Fields Medallist, Tim Gowers, who said:

It is quite possible to use mathematical concepts correctly without being able to say exactly what they mean. This might sound like a bad idea, but the use is often easier to teach and a deeper understanding of the meaning, if there is any meaning over and above the use, often follows of its own accord.”

Maths takes time. It requires patience and practice. There are no shortcuts – unless you’re a genius.


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