It all comes back to 'what's the go of it';Opinion

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
IT FELT weird. Though distinctly numerically challenged, I found myself on a hot day at the grand opening ceremonies of a prestigious week-long international conference on industrial and applied mathematics.

In the opulent enclaves of Edinburgh's McEwan Hall here was I totally surrounded by almost 2,000 specialised brains belonging to some of the world's most talented industrial and applied mathematicians.

Their telephone directory of a programme was an eye-opener, a glimpse into the rich and unfamiliar world of international scholarship in the practical applications of their craft: the mathematics of wound healing, risk management, climate research, national defence, even the law - to pick a handful of the (to me) most comprehensible titles.

One name towered over these international proceedings and prize-givings, that of arguably the greatest Scot ever in terms of his influence on our lives today. Also probably the least familiar and least honoured in his country. Perhaps that should change in the new Scotland.

James Clerk Maxwell was born in 1831 in Edinburgh. Before the age of two young James was using a tin plate to bounce an image of the sun off the furniture and make it dance against the walls. As a small child he bewildered his relatives with his incessant cry of "what's the go of it?"

He survived a classical education at the Edinburgh Academy where he was nicknamed Dafty Maxwell: nothing much changes in the playground. By the age of 14 he had written a paper on ovals which was read for him at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Why does the man who made the most significant discovery of our age - the theory of the electromagnetic spectrum - not appear in the gallery of famous Scots in the National Portrait Gallery? Maxwell, of course, made the mistake of dying young (48 - of stomach cancer, like his mother). Allegedly an indifferent lecturer, he was modest about his own discoveries, which were taken further by others including Einstein.

Various reports in The TES Scotland over the past few months have suggested that the teaching of science in particular is geared more to the few achievers rather than the indifferent many. It may be hard to extract the dryness from these subjects: to convince the young, at both primary and secondary levels, of the beauty of maths or the excitements of science.

A stunning wallchart from the Institute of Physics complete with teaching notes may help*. It illustrates the greatest achievement of James Clerk Maxwell, and provides an attractive classroom tool. Graphic colour illustrates the spectrum and its applications: gamma rays, X-rays, infrared, ultraviolet, microwaves, radio waves, plus the visible light section of the spectrum.

From aircraft to astronomy, from medical scanning to satellite weather pictures - there's something to catch the imagination of the young in applied science and its mathematical underpinnings.

Maxwell's scientific discoveries relied on mathematical equations. At the classroom end of the mathematical spectrum, this month marks not only Chris Woodhead's Scottish visit but the introduction of the Government's numeracy strategy in England, and the start of the build-up to National Maths Year 2000. (This, of course, may turn out to be a south of the border affair if inertia or complacency on the Mound decrees that nothing much need happen here.)

The pilots for the numeracy hour (actually 45 minutes) make interesting reading. Preliminary impressions indicate that common sense was right all along about mental arithmetic. Overall, participating schools show not only some sensational improvement in scores, but also fun and enthusiasm in the children for their new mathematical skills.

* PCET Wallcharts, 27 Kirchen Road, London W13 0UD (0181-567 9206).

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today