Julie Rosenfield

My journal

MATHS IS BEAUTIFUL!

It happened in the pub last night. I’ve recently started doing a maths course and I was dishing out to my friends a mathematical puzzle which asks that if, on a train, 70% of the passengers ate beans for breakfast, 75% ate eggs, 80% ate sausages and 85% ate toast, then how many of them definitely ate a full English breakfast?*

“But why are you studying maths?” groaned one of my pals. “Maths is boring. I did maths ‘O’ level at school and vowed that when I left, I would never touch maths ever again.”
And, until recently, I would have agreed with her. I’ve written before about my struggles with maths at school but, this time, I’d like to write from a new perspective.

Because is maths boring? Or is maths, as I’m slowly starting to understand, not boring but actually rather beautiful?

Oh, but how can that be? Many people would say that art is beautiful, music is beautiful, people are beautiful but maths? Surely, many people would say, maths with its wretched equations, algebra, geometry, pi, and 7x + 2y is nothing more than incomprehensible gibberish. And always in maths, the same questions are fired over and over again: “how much?” and “how many?”
But perhaps it is exactly because maths is incomprehensible to many people that it is actually beautiful.

After all, try standing outside on a cloudless night and gazing up at the stars. I did that once in the south of Turkey on a night where the overhead canvas of twinkling milky-white stars just spread out forever. Faced with that all-encompassing carpet of infinite, bright points of light, questions like how much and how many just disappear.

And then when you consider that there are more stars in the sky then there are grains of sand on the earth, then you can’t help but wonder at the numbers. The question of how many just dissolves into awe and reverence.

And yes, it’s true that art and music are beautiful. But what makes that so? Because if we peel back the paint a little, or take a closer look at the musical score, we will see that once again maths is at work here. It has been suggested that something called The Golden Mean – or the Golden Ratio – a special mathematical formula resulting in a number approximately equal to 1.618 and characterised by the Greek letter phi, means that we can find beauty and perfect symmetry in everything from Van Gogh’s sunflowers to the enigmatic face of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

And if you want to find out whether some of your favourite film stars add up in the beauty stakes, you might think of taking a tape measure and checking out the ratio on some pictures of their faces. If that’s the case, then the Golden Mean must be an essential piece of mathematical calculation for cosmetic surgeons everywhere!

But, of course, true beauty comes from within and, as yet, there is no tape measure nor any mathematical formula which will tell you if a person has that undefinable something: that special glow, that magic from inside, twinkling eyes or a smile that makes your day.

And music? Well, yes, Beethoven, Mozart and co did write beautiful music, it’s true. But again, to understand how many beats to a bar, rhythm, intervals, like it or not, it’s still maths acting as the frame that holds it all together. This is perhaps why one friend of mine who is a brilliant government mathematician and statistician is also a huge classical music buff and a jolly useful person to have as a team member in a pub quiz!

As human beings, like it or not, we are mathematical creatures. The strands of hair on our heads can be counted (eventually!), our days are numbered, we can count on our fingers. Count on in both senses – to assign a number to each and, in most cases, add up to ten or to count on as to rely on, to depend on. And, equally, as mathematical beings not only do we count 1,2,3 but we also count in the world – our ideas count, our opinions count. No wonder market researchers are always busy!

Imagine if we had mistakenly been found guilty of transgressing some serious law and before maximum penalty could be meted out, we were offered one last supper of our choice.
Instead of opting for a meal of the finest 5 star cuisine, we could instead ask just to be allowed to stand before the judge and recite all the digits of the mathematical constant Pi.

Having the mathematical knowledge and memory and being allowed the time we needed to recite all the digits of Pi with its infinite, non-recurring, non-repeating sequence of numbers we could, like Scheherazade with her nightly telling of tales in the Arabian Nights, ultimately ensure our survival as we would never run out of numbers and so could never be punished. Either that or the judge would eventually fall asleep. Proof then that maths is not only beautiful but it could save your life!

Of course, all this talk of maths being beautiful, may still seem to some people like a bit of a stretch of the imagination or even pi in the sky. But as one of the most famous mathematicians, Einstein, once said:

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

So there we are, maths is complex and mysterious and beautiful.

And, as for those train passengers at the beginning of this article, just how many of them did eat a Full English breakfast? Who knows, but it was probably all the ones who were really, really hungry!


To find out the answer to ‘Breakfast’ and many other mathematical puzzles, please visit Dara O’Briain’s School of Hard Sums at http://uktv.co.uk/dave/homepage/sid/9132

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