Times Higher Educational Supplement, October 22, 2004, p.58, `Best Practice'

Maths, but knot as they know it

Geoff Watts

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 l4-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.''

Details: http://www.popmath.org.uk/

Links provided by Ronnie Brown, Vice Director, CPM

Readers may also like to look at John Robinson's own web site, with its links to Prehistoric Rock Art, and at Jan Abas' site on Islamic Art.

In addition to listings on ECN, MathForum, EEVL given on the home page of the CPM as above, we are also one of 17 sites on the list for the  TES National Curriculum in Mathematics  web site. Here are some of their comments on the site.

ECN description: Math is beautiful at this site, which features symbolic sculptures and the mathematics of knots to raise awareness and appreciation of mathematics to an aesthetic level. There is also an extensive selection of essays, articles, books, and other online resources that deal with mathematical methodology and mythology.

MathForum description (9.16): The School of Mathematics at the University of Wales at Bangor has designed a website to expose a wide audience to the field of mathematics as a study of patterns, forms, and structures with diverse applications. Because of its graphics and photography, the site is engaging for students of many ages.

EEVL description: The Symbolic Sculpture section (which is separately described in Mathgate) features photographs and explanations of the work of John Robinson, linking to mathematical explanations of the sculptures in the Sculpture Maths section. The Knots Exhibition (also separately described in Mathgate) contains details of the Mathematics and Knots travelling exhibition, pictures of knots, tables of knots, classifications and history.

TES Description: Aiming to challenge the image of maths as "dull, or outlandish and impractical", the Centre for the Popularisation of Mathematics, University of Wales, Bangor, has created two intriguing websites: Symbolic Sculpture and Mathematics, exploring the interrelation of art and mathematics; and Mathematics and Knots, an Internet version of a travelling exhibition. Plentiful photos, diagrams and animated images make these pages a delight to visit for specialists and non-specialists alike.

To see the general level of interest in the CPM site, click on the counters for more information. For example, the Sculpture part alone has had over 135,400 page views since April, 2000, and the time zone analysis shows how widespread these visits are.

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Updated November 19, 2004