The 57-year-old principal of Queen Mary, University of London, and author of the Government's post-14 inquiry into the future of the subject, attributes his own interest in maths to inspirational teachers.
He said, when the inquiry was announced in November 2002: "Maths enables you to land on the moon, make films such as Jurassic Park, and have a mobile phone.
"But while Bob Winston makes people excited about medicine, and David Attenborough does the same for small furry animals, nobody is telling us how exciting maths is."
Mr Smith grew up in Dawlish, south Devon, half-way between Torquay and Exeter, and attended Teignmouth grammar.
At school, he discovered that not only was he good at maths but he also enjoyed it, thanks to what he described as an "excess" of talented, motivating maths teachers.
"It was a combination of inspirational teachers - those with that capacity to keep you wanting to know more - and their sheer competence in teaching it," he said.
After leaving school, he took a gap year working as a computer programmer for the Central Electricity Generating Board, before going on to read maths at Selwyn college, Cambridge, between 1965-68.
He then moved to University College London to study for an MSc and PhD in statistics, and took various teaching jobs before he was made professor of maths at Nottingham university in 1977.
He said: "There are many other attractions for maths graduates so the problem of getting the brightest, the best and most charismatic into teaching is a major issue," he said.
He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 2001.