Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Maths in Science - Introduction

I am interested in talking with people who use maths in their daily lives - that is all of us, isn't it? 

Last year I wrote two series of interviews with different groups of people, the first with world champion, world record holding or Olympic gold medal winning sportspeople and the second with world-reknown dancers and choreographers. The results were astounding - the insight and  wisdom these generous people shared with me was overwhelming.

You can read these interviews on this blog - Maths in Sport (January 2014) and Maths in Dance (July 2014).

After the second series, a friend from my pln (@stephygslalzar) suggested I look at Maths in Science.

So, here goes…

It might seem obvious - maths is a science, scientists use maths all the time, don't they? All those geeky kids at high school did lots of maths and science remember?

I started to think about this a bit. If I could ask some high profile scientists 10 questions, what would they be? I wanted to have some correlation with the questions I had already asked athletes and dancers but I realised that there would be some issues that would not be relevant across all three groups.

Here are the 10 questions I came up with:

1. Describe what maths lessons were like for you at school. 

This is a question I have used in the previous interviews. I think it is interesting and important to get a picture of school experience with maths.

2. Was the maths that you learnt at school useful to you later in life?

Another question from the previous interviews. I want to know if we actually teach anything useful in class or if most of it can be discarded.

3. How good do you need to be at mental arithmetic to do calculations in your head?

A third question that I have used with athletes and dancers. Is it important to be able to do mental calculations? Do people really need to be able to do this?

4. Mathematics teaches us that you can put two things together to make a new thing. Is this important in what you do?

A new question that I haven't used before. I am thinking about the nature of creativity and creative thought. It is a very mathematical idea - creating a new thing from two existing things.

5. Mathematics is about finding patterns. Do you need to look for patterns, or exceptions to patterns, in your research?

As Marilyn Burns said, the password of maths is pattern.

6. Mathematics also teaches us about balance and equality. Is this idea useful in your research?

You may have seen my ideas on the "=" sign being like a tightrope walker - whatever is on one side needs to be balanced by what is on the other side.

7. Mathematics helps us to represent quantities and measurements numerically. Do you do this in your work?

We do a lot of measurement in maths.

8. Is estimation good enough or do you need to measure things accurately?

I'm really interested in estimation - how does this fit in with a scientist's need for accuracy?

9. How do you use statistics to analyse your results?

Of course, I am expecting scientists to use stats to analyse their results but I what to hear it from them - HOW do they use maths to analyse ideas?

10. Do you have any other insights to offer into how you use maths in your work?

Always end with an open question - give the student input into the lesson, give the interview subject opportunity to provide insights that you may never have considered.

Well, I'm excited. I googled the top 50 most important scientists in the world and got replies from several of them. I also found a list of Australia's top scientists and wrote to most of them as well. Then I found a few other scientists who I thought might be interesting - people involved in industry and engineering. I would like to thank up front all of these people for their generous contributions of thought and time from their busy schedules. I really appreciate what they have all done.

Here's part of a reply I got from Professor Don Kinard, senior technical advisor at Lockheed-Martin:

Interesting questions Mr. Ferrington; they made me think and allowed me to philosophize a bit.  I am pleased that you are taking the time to collect information on how math is used in the real world to better impress upon your students that math is fundamental to all science and engineering advancement and is literally the key to the future for your students as well as for society as a whole. 

So starting tomorrow I will be posting the full responses.

This will be interesting...

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