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

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.

## TeaKayB

I like to include snippets of history wherever I can in my lessons- I think it’s helpful – not to mention interesting – to hear some background on when, why and who, and it also turns out that a lot of mathematicians were utterly barmy.

I’d love to include more on things that are happening right now, or at least in living memory. One lesson I do bring out around Christmas time is on fractals, with references to Benoit Mandelbrot (who died only a couple of years ago, and who I wrote a guest post about for this very blog). It always amazes the kids that ‘new’ maths has happened so recently, even within many of their lifetimes. It’s a shame that they don’t get this more often: my kids are in a minority as fractals are not, to my knowledge, included on any suggested mathematics curricular at secondary level. I use the yuletide period as an excuse to fling some really cool pictures at them, mention that maths is something that is happening right now, and get them to make some pretty snazzy 3D pop-up Sierpinski Christmas Tree cards.

One big problem with including ‘new’ maths is that there’s already so much in there it’s difficult to find the time to add in anything new. I’d counter this by saying that maybe it’s time to shake things up and rethink what we teach. What is really necessary, and what might be a good idea to drop in here and there as a draw to what is, lets face it, a subject which isn’t that widely well thought of?

Inter-disciplinary modules, or even just individual lessons, would be something that I was well up for, but a major difficulty there is that very few non-mathematics teachers are open to the idea that maths may actually be useful, heaven forbid actually interesting. This is a massive shame as such cross-curricular linkages would be an excellent route for showing just how relevant and compelling mathematics is when you give it a chance.