The Age of Maths

If you study physics or astronomy, you get to learn about stuff that’s really only just been published. If you’re a biologist or a chemist, recent discoveries form a big part of your studies. Historians consider the modern era fair game, and no English Literature course would be complete without something written in living memory.

If you do a maths GCSE, the most recent thing you look at is from before Newton. It’s not much more up-to-date at A-level: the Core modules take in some 18th century calculus (I’m looking at you, Euler), Mechanics 1 is all Newton all the time, Statistics 1 has a wee bit of correlation stuff from the 20th century, and only Decision has anything at all post-war (Prim, as far as I can tell, is the only person named in the regular A-level syllabus who’s still alive).

I don’t have a well-formed opinion about whether this is a good or a bad thing — but what it does mean is that other scientists have much less of a gap between the subjects they’re learning in class and the big research papers of the day. It’s much easier for a Physics A-level student to pick up New Scientist and say ‘that’s interesting’ — even if the solution doesn’t make sense, the problem probably will.

It’d be interesting — I think — to have cross-disciplinary modules discussing (for instance) cryptanalysis, mixing the history of Bletchley Park with the work of the code-breakers there, and possibly going on to more recent developments. I’d love to see a module about Hilbert’s problems, a module based on Gödel, Escher, Bach, even something about the ABC conjecture. Who knows, the students might even come up with something interesting between them.

So, I’m curious to know: do you think this is a problem? Should mathematicians study more modern maths? Or is that a special treat you’re only allowed to indulge in at university?


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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