"Oh god, I hope not," was the reaction of a student when author Mario Livio asked the title question of his latest book at a lecture, and it's a reaction that's likely to be replicated by many unsuspecting bookshop browsers. But despite its frightening title, the book's appeal could not be broader. All that's required to enjoy this fascinating read is a capacity to marvel at the mysteries of
nature and humankind's attempts to understand them — this is "popular mathematics", or rather "popular philosophy", in the true sense of the word.
The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has done its bit this week in keeping the government honest, at least when it comes to its use of statistics. Within 24 hours of the Home Office releasing unverified and selective statistics, despite the protests of government statisticians, Sir Michael Scholar (chair of the UKSA) wrote a public letter to the Prime Minister's Office criticising the
government's actions. The quick response from the independent body responsible for ensuring the quality of official statistics generated a lot of media attention, not only highlighting the mistakes made in this instance, but also showing the power the UKSA may wield to stop the misuse of statistics.
The government has revealed plans for a new maths GCSE to become available in 2010, as well as a pair of twinned maths GCSEs to be introduced in 2015 — over ten years after their recommendation by Adrian Smith in his Making mathematics count report. The twinned GCSEs are designed to give students a broader grounding
in mathematics, with one GCSE, dubbed "formal mathematics" focusing on the rigorous and coherent nature of mathematics, and the other, entitled "contextual mathematics" focusing on the application of mathematics in real life. Both GCSEs are intended to be qualifications in their own right, which students study for in two separate two-year courses. The idea is that the majority of students will
study for both GCSEs, and that those who obtain both qualifications will be well equipped for further study of maths. It is hoped that the twin set-up will provide more challenge for able students, while more fairly rewarding those at the lower end of the ability spectrum. It is also hoped that the new GCSEs will move students away from the parrot approach to learning maths, which focuses on
regurgitation rather than understanding.
The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), which helped devise the new GCSEs together with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), has welcomed the government's announcements, but criticised the time scale. "We are puzzled at the proposed time scales for rolling out the pair," said Dame Julia Higgins FRS, Chair of
ACME, "To wait until 2015 for first teaching, with first awards being nine years from now is simply too protracted. Efforts must focus on bringing forward the date for rollout of the pair". Dame Julia also criticised the introduction of the new single GCSE, expressing fears that it will undermine the double option while not delivering its benefits.
Adrian Smith's 2004 report delivered a damning verdict on the state of mathematics education in the UK, and predicted that a shortage of maths skills in the work force could have dire consequences for the UK economy. Commenting on the impact of the GCSE time scale, Dame Julia said: "The UK economy will face the consequences of millions of students over the next nine years sitting a single GCSE
which will not deliver the deeper understanding of mathematics and its applications that is desperately required". ACME's concerns, as well as its welcome of the new twin option, were endorsed by the two main mathematics bodies in the UK, the London Mathematical Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its
The two major events over the last couple of months have been the credit crunch and the US presidential election. We take a mathematical view of both of these, muse over the surprising effectiveness of maths when it comes to describing the world we live in, and scrutinise some mathematical philosophy. Plus the usual mix of news, reviews and podcasts.
If you are a regular Plus reader who enjoys the weird and wonderful world of mathematics, then you may be interested in helping Plus secure its future. We are launching a campaign to raise the funds we need for the continued development and production of Plus beyond 2009.
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The recent news of the great Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar surpassing West Indian Brian Lara's record number of test runs has given maths-loving cricket geeks another opportunity to pull out their calculators and Excel spreadsheets. Marc West is openly one of these nuts and did just that.