Market cool maths in Hollywood style

21st July 2006 at 01:00
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, has announced a pound;4 million campaign for pupils aged 11 to 14 to make maths cool. He hopes the money can be used to create lessons that will be based on problems that "appeal to pupils".

For example, pupils will be calculating how many flats can be built in the Olympic Village in 2012 or calculating the amount of material needed to make 100 dresses for London Fashion Week.

I applaud the minister's desire to make maths cool. But he should give 11 to 14-year-olds more credit than to think that just because a calculation is about the Olympics or fashion, that they won't recognise it is simply window dressing for yet more boring calculations.

Maths is necessary because it helps us to calculate lengths of fabric and areas of building sites. But what makes it really cool is that it sits at the heart of so many of the exciting innovations that drive the modern world.

Every time a child (or Gordon Brown) listens to the Arctic Monkey's on their iPod, they are using the power of 0s and 1s to digitally store the music. Every time they download The Pussycat Dolls from iTunes, their parent's credit card is kept secure by the power of prime numbers.

And if you want to know why the World Cup ball was bending so much, then equations will explain that swerve. This is the maths we should be showing teenagers. It is tough, but exciting.

Why are we so scared to show kids some of the complicated stuff that lies out there? Surely this is what will inspire them to master the boring arithmetic in the classroom? The music teacher in the class next door is not simply getting kids to play scales ever faster and higher. It is about hearing the sound of Beethoven or the blues that convinces kids to put the effort into doing the hard graft of learning music.

Hollywood agrees with Mr Johnson. Numerous movies recently have included maths and mathematicians: Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. But my favourite is the CBS television crime show NUMB3RS in the United States. The DVD of the first series arrived just the other day.

I started watching an episode before my 10-year-old went to bed. He became so intrigued by the show that I had to switch off the player to get him to go to sleep. This morning, I discovered that he had set his alarm to go off at 5.30 and had watched five episodes before breakfast.

NUMB3RS features an FBI agent whose brother is a professor of maths at Cal-Sci. In each episode the professor helps his brother to crack the crime by using a different bit of maths - from Fourier analysis to game theory, or the maths of bubbles to probability theory.

The producer, Ridley Scott, enlisted the help of a group of professional mathematicians to ensure the science is genuine. In the show, the mathematician isn't your classic geeky nerd who goes insane by the end of the episode. Professor Charles Eppes is played by the handsome David Krumhotz. Hooray for a sexy role model.

The show also sends out the message that maths isn't just for boys. The PhD student who helps Charlie out with some of the maths is an equally ungeeky woman called Amita Ramanujan, named after the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Of course my son got sucked in by the cops and robbers aspect. But this morning he was explaining on the way to school how he was going to try to crack Riemann's Hypothesis about prime numbers and bring the financial world to its knees (episode 5), and how he was going to use the power of exponentials to set up his own pyramid scam (episode 8).

Maybe encouraging key stage 3 kids into criminal activity is not ideal, but my son had genuinely engaged with some real maths.

In America, Texas Instruments has teamed up with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to create an outreach programme for schools, based on the series, with classroom activities based on the concepts featured in each episode.

Perhaps Mr Johnson could use the pound;4m to buy every school in England a DVD of NUMB3RS. That really would be cool.

Marcus du Sautoy is professor of mathematics at Oxford university

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