It’s that time of year when Year 12 students start to register on UCAS and realise that they may need more evidence of their passion for their chosen subject. This makes it the perfect time for attending a public lecture featuring mathematical heavyweights like Hannah Fry and James Maynard. Especially if the venue is the Science Museum in London.
Even those outside the world of maths will be familiar with Hannah Fry from TV and radio programmes like ‘The Secret Genius of Modern Life’ and ‘The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry’. However, in my opinion, James Maynard was the real star of this show, even if he is less well-known in mainstream media. James has achieved a great deal in the mathematical world, including winning a Fields Medal last year.
Many universities host public lectures throughout the year, and since the pandemic, it may be possible to access these live online and after via recordings and podcasts.
As face-to-face lectures can be hard to get to, seeing icons Hannah Fry and James Maynard live at the Science Museum on the 18 May was quite a treat. The subject, Prime Numbers, has been the focus of James’ groundbreaking work. He explained that his fascination with prime numbers was based on the fact that they are so fundamental (like the atoms of whole numbers) and yet so mysterious. Even simple questions turn out to be very hard to answer, and he gave many examples, including how many “safe” primes there are, where a safe prime is one where (p-1)/2 is also prime.
After the main lecture, James and Hannah sat down for a ‘fireside chat’ (thankfully, there was no actual fire on the warm May evening). Hannah asked insightful questions, allowing the audience to see more of James’ personality, his process when working on maths problems, and some stories from his early childhood that might have foreshadowed his future accomplishments.
The sixth formers around me saw in James a genuine passion for the subject and some helpful reminders of how James immersed himself in a current problem and the importance of switching off and connecting with the real world again. They saw how James channelled his fear of making a humiliating mistake into rigorous checking and how he overcame this fear to participate in the Polymath project. As a teacher, I was most interested to hear how James is driven by the need to understand, first and foremost, rather than by a need for recognition. Also, my students’ only complaint was that James didn’t go into the mathematics deeply enough – it is reassuring that they also have a thirst for understanding.
As teachers, it is helpful to sign up for university mailing lists regarding their public lectures, attend them, and recommend them to your students when you can. You can also help younger students develop a taste for mathematical talks by taking them to university-based Year 10 Enrichment Days such as:
For current Year 12 students preparing for university applications, problem-solving classes are starting as soon as we return to school in September:
by Kristin Coldwell