Proud to be a Mathematician – The Radio Debate

In 2005, I wrote an article for the IMA Mathematics Today called “Proud to be a Mathematician!” In this article, I informed the mathematics community how I had a lively debate with a radio DJ who had said that mathematics is boring! I never realized at the time that my actions would inspire so many up and coming mathematicians. To this date, I am still approached by some random mathematician who have read the article. However, the most humbling moment was when I received an email from an US soldier serving in Afghanistan.  He said that reading about the radio debate had inspired him to pursue a career in mathematics.

Whilst driving home late one evening, I had the radio on. I was listening to a station that broadcasts to the whole of the West Midlands. This was a late night talk show. On this radio programme there was a presenter and a co-presenter. To my alarm, this is what I heard:

Co-Presenter : One of the topics tonight is maths. There was a maths teacher at a conference recently who stated that mathematics should not be compulsory for fourteen year olds.

Presenter : That is right! Maths is BORING!

The Presenter really emphasized the ring of boring by holding the syllable for five seconds. I was not very happy when I heard this. When I arrived home, fifteen minutes later, I obtained the radio station’s phone number and rang up. To my surprise, after introducing myself as a professional mathematician, I went straight on air!

Presenter : On line one, we have Nira. Nira how can we help you?

I paused for a moment, and then I started, speaking a bit nervously I said:

Nira : The reason why I have phoned is because of what you have been saying about mathematics. I disagree with you. Mathematics should be compulsory for 14 year olds. At that age, as a country, we are mathematically behind countries like France, Germany, Japan and India. I think we should be looking at ways of strengthening mathematics, not weakening it. Mathematics is a beautiful and powerful subject.

Presenter : Wow, wow, wow Nira! What are you going on about? Mathematics is a beautiful and powerful subject? Come on Nira! Everybody knows that mathematics is BORING!

The presenter again emphasized the ring of boring. I considered this as a verbal slap in the face. From this point on I lost all my nervousness. I replied:

Nira : Mathematics IS the poetry of logical ideas!

For a moment there was a stunned silence. Then, the presenter countered:

Presenter : Okay, but Nira tell me why a fourteen year old needs mathematics?

Nira : Doing mathematics you acquire the skills of speed, accuracy and understanding. You also acquire skills such as strategy and organisation for everyday use. If you are talking about not making mathematics compulsory for fourteen years you might as well not make English compulsory as well!

Presenter : No, no, no Nira! We need English! We don’t need maths!

Nira : Oh yeah, so tell me something. How do you make a cup of tea?

There was a pause, and then the presenter avoided the question by saying:

Presenter : But Nira why do we need mathematics?

Nira : Mathematics is one of the few scientific subjects, that can be described as an art form. Studying mathematics is almost like playing a sport. It is one of the few subjects that teaches geography to geographers, biology to biologists, engineering to engineers, economics to economist, etc.

Presenter : Okay, okay Nira, I give you that! Mathematics is not boring; it is the teachers that make it boring! But answer me this, why does a fourteen year old need mathematics?

Nira : Lets say, you’re driving a car and all of a sudden you see a ball roll out in front of you followed by a child …

Presenter : Wow,wow,wow Nira! I have to stop you there! I just have to stop you there! I agree that you use mathematics in speed, braking distances and angles! But, there is no way you take out a calculator when you about to run over a child in your car!

Nira : No you don’t use a calculator! But teaching a fourteen year old child mathematics, at that age, enhances their natural mathematical abilities!!

Stunned silence. Then I heard the co-presenter whisper to the presenter “He’s highly educated”. A bit of a pause, then the Presenter spoke to me in a more calmer and slower manner.

Presenter : Nira, what do you do?

Nira : I am a Chartered Mathematician.

Presenter : Educated to what level?

Nira : Masters.

Presenter : And what do you in your job?

Nira : I write mathematical simulation models that solve complex engineering problems

Presenter : Oh! Well Nira, thank you for phoning this radio station this evening.

The presenter paused, then continued very slowly.

Presenter : I really am sorry, but I still disagree with you. I can see why mathematics is relevant to somebody like you though. But hey, at least your views have been broadcast right across the West Midlands.

Then to my surprise the presenter said this:

Presenter : Actually Nira! Congratulations! You are the first person I have ever spoken to, who has made mathematics sound sexy! Goodbye.