The Terror of Maths

I’m not sure whether to be amused or appalled by the story of the Professor whose flight was delayed in order for him to be interrogated because a fellow passenger saw him doing some mathematical calculations. I know some people who find mathematics scary but that’s taking things too far! I wonder if the passenger was Simon Jenkins?

I was wondering whether the calculation was concerned with plane geometry but that seems not to be the case. The academic concerned is an Economist and he was studying a differential equation. That surprises me. I hadn’t realised economists knew about calculus. Or about anything else, for that matter.

The BBC coverage of the story used the following image:


The physicists among you will recognize this as a representation of some of Maxwell’s Equations. I very much doubt they played a part in the work of  our Economics Professor, so presumably this is just one of the  BBC’s stock of generic “scary maths” images.

Other things worth noting are that this version of Maxwell’s Equations isn’t written in SI units, the standard notation in the UK and Europe. As a matter of fact it uses cgs units, which suggests it may be an American import. Nor is it really correct anyway, because the time derivative inside the brackets should surely be partial.

All of which goes to demonstrate how Mathematics is usually viewed in the media and, by extension, the public at large: like an arcane book written in an incomprehensible  language that should be viewed with suspicion or ridicule by any sensible person.

There is nothing new about this, of course. I’m reminded that in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian Way, Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie was arrested in France on suspicion of being a German spy because the authorities thought his mathematical notes were coded messages of some sort.

In reality, mathematics is the most open and universal language of all and, as such, is a powerful force for human good. Among many other things, quantitative reasoning and proper logic help to defend us against those who lie and distort the facts in order to gain power. Mathematics may not be the easiest language to learn, but it’s well worth the effort, even if you can only master the basics.



5 Responses to “The Terror of Maths”

  1. “I’m not sure whether to be amused or appalled by the story of the Professor whose flight was delayed in order for him to be interrogated because a fellow passenger saw him doing some mathematical calculations.”

    Reminds me of the bad mathematician who tried to smuggle a bomb into a plane. His defence: he was trying to protect the flight from a terrorist attack; while the probability of one bomb being on board is small, the probability of two is negligible. 🙂

  2. Although I am now a trade union official I am grateful for my engineering training that has given me a strong mathematical grounding. Whilst I have long forgotten how to do partial diffentials and Ziegler Nichols PID tuning the maths training I have clear and methodical approach to problem solving. Plus some of my non maths trained colleagues genuinely think I have some form of special powers when I do a bit of data analysis and present it to them clearly.

    Maths rocks. It’s the intellectual version of going to the gym to life weights. You don’t have to do it for any other reason than for fun, to exercise the mind and test yourself against your own abilities. If it has other side benefits, great. But it doesn’t have to

  3. Some subfields of economics are very mathematical, for instance work by Nobel prize winners such as Nash, Shapley (son of astronomer Harlow Shapley), Aumann and Arrow. Just how much relevance mathematical economics has to real life is another question…

  4. If I ran an airline, I’d make it a rule that anyone who asked for anyone to be removed from a flight would be permanently banned from the airline. I’ve read many times of people being removed from planes because some other passenger thought they were dubious. I’ve never read of any occasion on which someone removed from a flight actually deserved to be.

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