Loves me, loves me knot

19th January 2001 at 00:00
RAISING PUBLIC AWARENESS OF MATHEMATICS CD-Rom. By the Centre for the Popularisation of Mathematics. CPM, Bangor University, Dean Street, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 1UT. pound;6 inc postage. E-mail:

Fascinating! But who and what is it for? The more I ran this CD-Rom, the more I found to amaze, please, stimulate and intrigue; equally, the more I began to ask about its intention and audience.

The Centre for the Popularisation of Mathematics (CPM), based at the University of Wales in Bangor, is directed by Professor Ronnie Brown, the "knots man". The funding for the CD-Rom came from a European Commission grant and it is part of the CPM's contribution to Maths Year 2000.

It brings together the contents of two websites and seven posters. The websites come from Bangor. One contains the work of Ronnie Brown and Tim Porter on "Knots and Mathematics", the second photographs and animated images of the "Symbolic Sculptures" of John Robinson, and their association with geometry and topology.

The posters were created by Stephane Durand of Montreal, Canada, and won first prize in 1999 in a European Mathematical Society competition.

The Pop Maths Road Show began at the University of Leeds in 1989 and then went all round the country. A central features was its mathematical "knots"exhibition and the wonderful sculptures of John Robinson that offered deeply moving and staggerigly beautiful interpretations of some of the knots. The CD displays both these areas, with links between them. Some of both sculptures and knots are animated; the knots can be untied and the sculptures rotate.

But that is that. I read the words, marvelled at the sculptures, rotated them and moved back and forth between the two main sections of the CD, but ultimately I was not engaged mathematically.

Through the main menu I was able to access the poster collection and its associated maths. Its links to the sections on knots and sculptures are few. There is more to the section called "Geometry and Topology", which in turn has links to the knots and sculptures. The posters, despite the links, did not really seem to "belong", but I found them the more engaging. They posed questions which the maths helped to answer.

There are many references to text materials through which the viewer can follow up areas of interest. Perhaps it is not meant to be "used" at all, simply viewed. If this is so, then it is unlikely to raise public awareness of maths. Perhaps maths teachers and mathematicians will view it. But to raise awareness, it needs to be engaged with in a mathematically active way by those who are unaware and that means challenging the passive viewer. For the most part it fails to do this.

Tom Roper is senior lecturer in maths education at the University of Leeds

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