Allow beautiful minds to thrive 1

September 16, 2005

The British Association for the Advancement of Science warns that the research assessment exercise does not recognise the importance of the public communication of science ("Scientists want time to talk", September 9). Experience in the mathematics faculty at Bangor was that the Teaching Quality Assessment did not recognise it either.

This is a kind of travesty. Exploration, exposition and communication have for centuries been recognised as essential to the progress of science.

Where would we be without Euclid's marvellous compilation of the geometry of his day? Galileo, Faraday, Poincare, Klein, Hilbert, Einstein, Hoyle and Feynman have all made public communication, and often disagreement with authority, an important part of their work.

Our aim for the popularisation of mathematics has been, to modify Science Minister Lord Sainsbury's words in the same issue of The Times Higher , to show the public, students and the Government not only the important role that mathematics plays in society, but also how it evolves.

Mathematics progresses partly through the solution of problems, but also through clarification and good exposition, providing a developing language for description, verification, deduction and calculation. It makes the difficult easy. It works over a long timescale. It shows new possibilities through gradual conceptual advance. It formulates new problems.

So mathematics is a foundation of the modern technological society. It is a considerable challenge to try to show advanced mathematics from an elementary viewpoint.

Some results of our work in popularisation of mathematics at Bangor over the past 20 years may be seen on our website We have had strong support from, among others, the patrons of the sculptor John Robinson, for promoting his Symbolic Sculptures.

An unplanned consequence has been sculptures by Robinson at, for example, Bangor, Cambridge, Durham and Macquarie universities.

This supports the aim of associating mathematics and science with art, and demonstrates art as a mode of symbolising an idea.

Work in communicating to children and the general public ideas in mathematics has helped us to analyse and express our programme, to communicate mathematical concepts to fellow scientists and students, and so to interdisciplinary collaboration.

For the future of the UK, the public communication of science and mathematics should be supported financially and in career structure, and be part of the assessment of the success of a university and of the vitality of research and teaching teams.

Ronnie Brown Emeritus professor of mathematics University of Wales, Bangor

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