It all adds up to connecting with people about numbers

Ian Stewart is being honoured for his work promoting maths and sharing his passion for it with the public. Hannah Fearn reports

May 7, 2009

In 1967, Ian Stewart arrived at a fledgeling University of Warwick as a PhD student with a passion for telling people about the wonders of maths.

Sir Christopher Zeeman was head of department and encouraged his young charges to take their mathematical knowledge out into the wider world.

"It was the best thing that happened to me in my career," Professor Stewart said. "He was very, very good at getting the right people. I arrived into a very broad-minded culture - a bunch of us started a mathematics magazine. He and the university in general had this positive attitude, and I was always encouraged."

Four decades later, Professor Stewart is Warwick's leading mathematician and the first winner of a new award bearing his former tutor's name.

Jointly awarded by the London Mathematical Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the Christopher Zeeman Medal recognises the contributions of academics in promoting mathematics to the public, work that Sir Christopher held dear.

Professor Stewart is best known for his mathematics books written for a general audience, including Does God Play Dice?, Nature's Numbers and Letters to a Young Mathematician.

"Virtually everything I write now, I want to be as widely accessible as is reasonably possible," he explained. "The way I write is not just a matter of putting down elegant words on the page, it is thinking of a way to get ideas over and trying to keep it simple. Maths is about finding the simplicity in real complexities."

Professor Stewart, who also writes science fiction and has collaborated with Terry Pratchett, one of the genre's best-known authors, likens his work to TV football commentary - those who follow it already understand the rules of the game.

"You just assume a certain basic interest and a little bit of knowledge. Even for popular science writing you need to do that," he said.

He understands that his readership is limited, but sees a vital role for academics in helping the public understand what goes on behind the closed doors of universities.

"We need to explain to the public - who are perfectly capable of understanding things if we strip out the jargon - the kind of things we're doing.

"It's not educating an ignorant public, it's engaging with the public and giving them some understanding with which to build their own argument on what's going on."

This process, he contends, allows the public to make good judgments about academic work and prevents facts about science and maths being distorted in the public sphere.

Infinite possibilities

After studying as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, Professor Stewart arrived at Warwick when it was in its infancy.

"It was the sort of place where you knew everybody. Because it was new kids on the block setting it up, almost anything was possible."

Under Sir Christopher, the new department went from strength to strength. The head of mathematics was already a public figure, regularly discussing his subject on the BBC.

Professor Stewart completed his PhD in just two years, took a lecturing job at the university and, by then a leading researcher in the field of bifurcations with symmetry, gained his professorship in 1990.

Popular and in demand

His commitment to public engagement was such that Warwick was forced to create a new post that gave him the time and resources to address the wider public.

Cambridge had already recognised his work and attempted to poach him for a new chair dedicated to educating the wider public in science and maths. He turned down the position and Warwick created a broader job for him in 1997.

"My activities were becoming so extensive that it was becoming very difficult to do them and full-time undergraduate teaching and research, so the university put together a scheme that gave the department half my salary to employ a new young person who would carry out teaching duties and free up my time," he said.

It allowed him to spend about half of his time on public engagements about mathematics and science.

He said the university's decision was not unique, pointing out that "as well as it being good for the public that academics explain what they're doing, it's also good for the university".

But he added: "If you haven't got someone in the department who is that way inclined, then trying to force it won't work."

Although much of his work is accessible to the layman, Professor Stewart still publishes for the academic community.

"I don't think you can explain mathematics to the public with any authority or credibility unless you're well involved in the real thing," he explained.

He is close to retirement, but Warwick is poised to create an honorary post for him.

He expects his twilight years to be "business as usual". He said: "I don't want to retire and grow roses - I want to retire and grow more maths."

Professor Stewart will be presented with the Christopher Zeeman Medal at a ceremony at the Science Museum in London on 9 June.

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