Maths - Background research

17th August 2012 at 01:00
Maths-themed screensavers can be a real conversation starter

As maths teachers, we try to find whatever hooks we can to hang learning upon, from the moment pupils arrive in our classrooms to the moment they leave, and hopefully for some of the time in between.

We cut mathematical clips from newspapers, we cover our walls with posters and we hang quotations from the ceiling. Are any nooks and crannies left in our classrooms that remain to be mathematised? How about the desktop pictures on our computers? As soon as I switch on my machine, I can use these to get a maths conversation going without any effort at all.

Windows 7 makes this easy - just right-click on the desktop and "personalise". You can then specify a folder and your screen will cycle around all the pictures it contains. I choose the fastest setting for this, a change of picture once every 10 seconds.

Now begins the fun part: selecting the pictures to add to your collection. I could give you the address to my folder, but that would miss the point - you will already have plenty of maths images of your own to crop into something fascinating. It can be a joint enterprise: pupils can email you their favourite mathematical pictures to add to the folder, although they do need to accept that ultimate artistic control lies with the teacher.

I have high-speed photography of a bouncing table-tennis ball and the image of a cylindrical steel post in Madrid, in which the reflection of a strange picture on the pavement transforms into the face of Salvador Dali. I have a university blackboard covered in mysterious chalk Us and Cs. There are images from the Large Hadron Collider, while the Hobermann sphere sets off childhood memories. Everyday maths is there: a pile of oranges from the market, and the Fibonacci sequence as seen in a daisy. A topological snow sculpture, a crocheted picture of the group E8, a patterned quilt ...

You can include mathematicians. On my projector, the 19th-century German prodigy Karl Gauss fixes us with his steely gaze every so often. We have Sir Andrew Wiles looking cheery as he announces his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. I also have a picture of the French-American Benoit B. Mandelbrot, and students always say how much like me (without a beard) he looks. "What maths did your uncle do, Jonny?" someone asks, and I have a way into the Mandelbrot set (which I hope in 10 seconds' time will be exactly what we are looking at).

Jonny Griffiths teaches maths in a sixth-form college.


Get started with some images of maths in art, news and real life with andrewchambers' maths displays.

Or use Len Cooper's numbers-in-nature images to introduce the Fibonacci sequence.


One teacher wants to know exactly what the multiplication symbol means mathematically. Can you help?

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