Why a Centre for the Popularisation of Mathematics ?

The Centre was formed in 1989 to present Mathematics to as wide as possible an audience, and as a stimulus and focus to a range of activities.

Its aim is to show mathematics as a study of form, pattern, and structure, and to give an impression of

  • the objects of study of mathematics
  • the methodology of mathematics
  • the successes and applications of mathematics
  • the enjoyment of mathematics
  • the wider context of mathematics

In this way we hope to allow the public and government to obtain a more accurate view of the place of mathematics in our understanding of the world, and our ability to work and live within it.

Unfortunately, our subject is often presented to school children, to students and to the general public as dull, or outlandish and impractical, or very useful but to be practised only by a few,akin to the eccentric geniuses of fiction. Even professional mathematicians are known to present the value of mathematics as concerned with utility, or achievement. These values are necessary for many purposes, and should be presented, but are not sufficient.

`I think the one thing that sets us apart from all other forms of life is our Artistic Creativity. The earliest works of art used by our Cro Magnon ancestors to communicate with the Unkown were Symbols, and more often than not these were based on Mathematical patterns. I believe the first paintings and sculptures were DOTs, and the DOT can also be looked upon as the beginning of Geometry.'

John Robinson

'Our aim is to popularise Mathematics by presenting John Robinson's extraordinary Sculptures and their links with Mathematics and Science. Mathematics is the study of patterns and structures, and the expression and description of these in terms of a language which allows for understanding, deduction and calculation. This is why it yields a necessary language for many aspects of science, technology and human activity, and so is strongly associated with utility and applications. It is also associated with achievement, in unravelling the complexities of the structures it studies. The combination of Mathematics with John's Symbolic Sculptures gives us a sense of excitement and wonder at the beauty and originality of these forms, patterns and structures, and enhances our wish to study them for their own sakes.'

Ronnie Brown

Who is the "audience" ??

We also seek to involve members of the general public in "doing" some mathematics. We hope to bring certain areas of mathematical thought to the attention of anyone who enjoys thinking and puzzling over patterns and structures and also to introduce some people to the idea that mathematics is something which they can do. We seek to popularise mathematics with our own undergraduate students and with school children.

Why ask about the nature of mathematics?

Taking a practical viewpoint, it is much harder to carry out an activity successfully and in the long term if you have no idea about its basic principles, aims, values, methodology. We like to discuss these with students - it has led to some surprises! Also, you may be asked: Why are you studying mathematics? It would be best to have a well prepared answer.

Einstein on the theory of knowledge:

[from Math Int. 12 (1990) no. 2, p. 31 ]

How does a normally talented research scientist come to concern himself with the theory of knowledge? Is there not more valuable work to be done in his field? I hear this from many of my professional colleagues; or rather, I sense in the case of many more of them that this is what they feel. I cannot share this opinion. When I think of the ablest students whom I have encountered in teaching - i.e., those who have distinguished themselves by their independence and judgement and not only mere agility - I find that they have a lively concern for the theory of knowledge. They like to start discussions concerning the aims and methods of the sciences, and showed unequivocally by the obstinacy with which they defend their views that this subject seemed important to them. This is not really astonishing. For when I turn to science not for some superficial reason such as money-making or ambition, and also not (or at least exclusively) for the pleasure of the sport, the delights of brain-athletics, then the following questions must burningly interest me as a disciple of science: What goal will be reached by the science to which I am dedicating myself? To what extent are its general results `true'? What is essential and what is based only on the accidents of development?... Concepts which have proved useful for ordering things easily assume so great an authority over us, that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labelled as `conceptual necessities', `a priori situations', etc. The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors. It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyse familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions on which their justification and usefulness depend, and the way in which these developed, little by little...