Have you ever wondered why a mouse can survive a fall from a tall building but a human cannot? Or how a Mexican wave starts or which queue to join in the supermarket? And had you guessed that these are in fact specimen maths questions, not jokes from a Christmas cracker? Professor Timothy Gowers of Trinity College Cambridge suggested recently in his personal blog that working out problems such as these would form the basis of a suitable syllabus for a post-16 year old qualification in Mathematics. The questions are not as random as they may seem because they all help the student explore different mathematical theories. For example, the following question is based on fermi estimation and probability: If you are flying to the USA what are the chances of your aeroplane crashing? And what are the chances of you dying of natural causes during the flight? Although the questions may raise philosophical or theological questions in our minds, to Professor Gowers the exploration of the numbers and the formulation of the answers show us how maths can be used for practical problem solving.
Michael Gove, Education Secretary, is a fan. He stated last year that he wanted to see the learning of maths in schools extended beyond GCSE level to keep us in line with other European countries, although we will continue to trail behind Korea and Japan for many years to come. As this course would be aimed at the practical rather than the theoretical side, it is likely to appeal to a wider range of pupils and, having read Gowers’ blog, Gove appointed him to the Advisory Council for Mathematics Education, or as it is known by its acronym ACME. Education charity Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) is now working alongside ACME and has today been awarded ‘substantial government funding’ to develop a post-16 course along the lines that Gowers suggested. The plan is to help young people use maths to be “problem-solvers in the real world”, said Charlie Stripp, chief executive of the MEI, while Gove said Gowers’s blog is “brilliant” and has generated huge interest in improving the teaching of maths. He adds: “I am delighted that MEI is trying to develop the Gowers blog into a real course that could help thousands of students understand the power of mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills.”
While it is interesting to work out mathematically what to do if you see a red light when you are driving home in a hurry, or, in these circumstances, calculate the accuracy of speed cameras, it is even more interesting to note that it was social media that catapulted Gowers’ private opinions into the spotlight. Written in private, to be read by fellow intellectuals, his words were soon read via his blog by strategists and civil servants and then the Education Secretary himself. The use of social media to influence politicians is a modern day mathematical phenomenon. To work out exactly how many people have been influenced by the Professors’ words, you simply need to find a sixteen year old with a grasp of fermi estimation.