Mathematics is vital!

[This is a painful post to write and probably to read, I attempt to soften the blow by including some geometric construction projects I have been working on!]

I write this as a UK mathematician recently moved to the US. A move decided upon before the election, let alone any mention of the deep cuts that the wonderful Science is Vital campaign is fighting. The brain drain for mathematics has been underway for a while. I was following the jobs listing in the UK closely for a couple of years and saw only a handful of permanent jobs.


Compound of five cubes made from laser cut and tabbed paper. No glue.


I am a firm believer in mathematics and mathematical thought. I believe that the ideas of mathematics are amongst the greatest cultural treasures and greatest achievements of mankind. On the other hand I believe that true mathematical thought is central to having a well-informed, engaged and active population. To me, therefore, the case for mathematics is clear both from an elitist and a populist stand point.


Students stand next to the Hexayurt they built, a project they initiated for the Mathematical Thought course I am currently teaching. The hexayurt is a simple structure that takes geometry into disaster relief housing.


Yet for a long time I felt that only the elitist case was being made, with some additions from utility in science. I have heard many people say the only answer from their teachers when asked “Why do we have to study mathematics?” was “You need to pass GCSE to get a job”. I wrote those feelings off, I could find many counter-examples and perhaps I was being over-critical. Unfortunately my denial could only go so far. I have already mentioned Science is Vital. Before that the same accusations could have been levelled at scientists. Yet when really pushed scientists from the great and the good through to the lowly lab workers rallied. 36,000 signed the petition, thousands marched wearing lab coats. If the cuts come no one can say that scientists went down gently.

What about mathematicians? We are smaller and quieter, have a harder time getting press coverage. Maybe an equivalent event would not have worked just for mathematics. Perhaps it is understandable that no protest had emerged from within mathematics as the first problems came. So what happened after the banner was raised by the scientists? Surely the pent up frustration led to overwhelming support?


The three big organisations of mathematics in the uk, the London Mathematical Society, Institute for Mathematics and its Applications and the Royal Statistical Society do not mention the cuts on their home pages, let alone Science is Vital. None is listed in Science is Vital’s long list of supporting organisations.

Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician, currently Professor for Public Understanding of Science is not listed as a signatory, and does not seem to have said anything public

[Edit 14/10/10: Many apologies to Marcus, he did sign (though should be listed)  has written about the cuts making the case for mathematics in the New Statesman, and has given talks in Oxford and elsewhere. This is a great relief!]

similarly David Spiegelhalter, Ian Stewart, and Tim Gowers

[EDIT 14/10/10 corrections welcome, I am searching as I can online but that is not a perfect system]

all mathematicians with a public reputation and some access to the media all seem silent. It is very unfair to name names, I do so here as these are my heroes, people who do great things for mathematics and its popular perception. The fact that even they did not join the campaign reveals to me the depth of the issue.

In fact in following this event and even searching for mathematicians getting active the thing I could find was Michael Atiyah who was listed as first author on a letter calling on the government to cut military R&D rather than basic science.

EDIT [14/10/10]: Chris Budd also took part in a great debate in the Economist about the essential role of mathematics in innovation.


Four parallel sets of lines make up an octagonal weave, closely related to the Ammann-Beenker tiling.


Perhaps less notable mathematicians were more busy, signing and joining the protest, I would love to hear from those who did. For all other mathematicians I want to conclude by screaming:

Wake up, fight for your subject!

No longer accept the bad reputation our beloved subject has, change it!

Say how esoteric abstract nonsense has changed the world!

Say how mathematical thinking can help live a fulfilled, productive life!

Make the case!

If not you, who?