Maths, but knot as they know it

October 22, 2004

How do you make a "difficult" subject more popular? With educationists bemoaning a crisis in maths, the Centre for the Popularisation of Mathematics at the University of Wales in Bangor certainly has its work cut out.

Ronald Brown, now emeritus professor of maths, created the centre in the late Eighties after the success of a touring exhibition of knots. The maths department had been teaching knot theory to undergraduates since the mid-Seventies - knots representing a tangible instance of the otherwise rather abstract kind of relationships that maths often describes.

Brown and Tim Porter, the centre's current director, aimed to produce something suitable for non-professionals. But Brown says that even maths students may need better explanations of the nature and purpose of the subject.

The centre aims to reach children through its part in the Royal Institution's masterclass scheme. In these, 60 or so 13- to 14-year-olds spend five Saturdays at the university learning about maths and its applications outside the national curriculum.

With its limited resources, the centre can do only so much to reach the public. But it maintains an illustrated website for all those who care to log on.

Fans of the centre include John Miller of the Centre for Computational Biology at Montana State University in the US. He praises it for getting round people's fear of maths: "Mathematics should be as simple to understand as poetry or a story."

Miller is also impressed by the links Brown has forged with art, in particular with the sculptor John Robinson, whose abstract works featuring mathematical forms are pictured on the Bangor centre's website.

"What the people at Bangor do," Miller says, "is to demonstrate not only that maths isn't instrinsically difficult, but that it's interesting and beautiful."


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