Hate maths? One man suggests that it’s the ancient Greeks to blame!
Michael Brooks, who holds a PhD in quantum physics, is a science author, journalist and broadcaster with more than two decades’ experience, recently published an article in New Scientist magazine, entitled, ‘Why maths should move on from the ancient Greeks.’
By way of introduction to this notion, Brooks shares ‘low numeracy’ statistics from around the globe, citing 30% of US adults as being unable to make calculations with whole numbers and percentages or interpret simple statistics in text or tables, with 49% of UK adults – 17 million people – have no more numeracy than would be expected of a primary school child.
In addition, Brooks continues, around 93 per cent of US adults describe themselves as experiencing some level of “math anxiety”, involving negative emotions such as rage and despair; as well as physical reactions such as an elevated heart rate, clammy hands and dizziness – when asked to interact with mathematical problems.
“We have a problem with maths,” Brooks writes. “I blame this on our obsession with the ancient Greeks.”
Many of our intellectual traditions hark back to this time of ancient Greek thinkers who ‘sought to understand the world in a logical and mathematical way.’
However Brooks questions this view of the world asking “is it logical to assume that “all is number” as the Pythagoreans did?”
“This led them to give certain numbers a special status and to dismiss the idea of nothingness, and thus zero as a number,” says Brooks.
“And what is actually divine about the “divine proportion”, sometimes known as the golden ratio? Although we often give the idea credence, there is no evidence that humans naturally credit this mathematically derived geometry with special aesthetic powers, as disciples of Euclid contend.
“The Greeks routinely ascribed mystical powers to shapes and forms: Plato described the 12-sided dodecahedron as the shape that God used “as a model for the twelvefold division of the Zodiac”. But there isn’t anything holy about this geometric form. Sometimes a shape is just a shape.
“Putting such ideas on a pedestal is problematic because it has created a cloud of awe and “otherness” around mathematics. This has percolated through to how we teach it and how it is received. Maths is endowed with an almost sacred status for the power of numbers. Those who share this faith become insiders. Those who don’t feel excluded,” says Brooks, believing that this creates ‘maths anxiety’ which lasts into adulthood, as does abandonment of the subject.
According to Brooks, one way to improve the subject's perception is by playing down the Platonists and the over-emphasis on the mystical significance of maths, compared to its practical utility.
Brooks believes that celebrating a non-Greek, more utilitarian approach to numbers could be the answer to the global problem of low numeracy caused by maths anxiety and would be much more faithful to the true history of mathematics.
Greek City Times speaks to Michael Brooks to understand more about his theories.
Looking at the data in your New Scientist article, it would seem that much of society has a problem with maths – a problem that you blame on the ancient Greeks.
To be clear, I don’t blame it on the ancient Greeks. I blame it on a culture in mathematics that venerates the ancient Greeks, and seeks to perpetuate their values as if they are timeless and apply across all cultures.
In simple terms you explain that the way that ancient Greek scholars viewed or thought about concepts relating to mathematics and geometry, bestowing them with “special powers”, has had the effect of “placing intellect upon a pedestal, creating a cloud of awe and endowing numbers with a sacred status that causes anxiety in many individuals”. Is this correct?
What causes anxiety in many individuals is the sense that they’re not ‘getting’ what is special about numbers. So if a maths teacher tells you that there’s something “awesome” or “mysterious” about prime numbers, say, and you don’t understand why your teacher says that, the tendency is to worry that you have missed something fundamental that will impede your future efforts in mathematics. And then you develop an anxiety.
If you’re not worried about having missed something, you just get on with doing the maths.
So my problem is not with the classical Greeks assigning a quasi-spiritual value to their work in mathematics; it’s the almost unthinking transmission of that set of values to students who are not in a position to evaluate or benefit from that set of values.
How did you reach this conclusion? Could you explain the research process you undertook to form this opinion?
Good questions: who am I to make such statements?!
Just someone exploring what lies behind people’s problems with maths. Let me try to explain…
When I wrote my book ‘The Art of More’, I was motivated by the fact that most people I encounter have a negative feeling about the maths they learned at school: they never understood why they learned it, they learned only enough to pass exams (if that), and they promptly forgot it all, and many actively avoided maths afterwards. That seemed a huge shame to me, because the value of maths to our civilisation goes unappreciated.
During the process of researching my book, which involved reading lots of books and research articles, and talking with maths educators, maths historians and active mathematicians, I became aware of how important ancient Greek thinking was throughout the history of western mathematical development. It seemed to me that the negative reception for maths was linked to an over-emphasis on the mystical significance of maths, compared to its practical utility.
The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God.
Could you explain to us your thoughts about what a ‘non-Greek’ approach would entail in a practical sense? You suggest that maths anxiety could be overcome by ‘grouping maths among the humanities, rather than as an adjunct to the natural sciences’ – how could this be done? How would this concept translate to the class room in a practical sense?
I think we under-play the fact that many aspects of mathematics were developed for purely practical reasons.
I can imagine teaching algebra by saying, “this is a 4,000 year old trick that was used by the Babylonians for calculating how much tax people owed, but has turned out to be so useful that all of your online purchases are organised and delivered using it…”and take it from there.
I think the less abstract a concept is, the easier young minds find it to deal with. I also think that if people studied the history of mathematics, rather than just the technical ‘how-to’ aspects, we could learn a lot of really useful lessons that would apply to other spheres of life.
We study humanities subjects for this; we study literature, for example, not to learn how to write (though sometimes it helps), but to understand more about human beings, and their relationships and societies. I think an understanding of the cultural side of mathematics would give us similar insights, and bring an under-valued subject back into the centre of our cultures.
How do you think maths teachers could ‘play down the Platonists’ in a practical sense?
Simply by not emphasising mystical aspects of numbers as much as the practical real-world utility of mathematical routines or the importance of mathematics in our culture and history.
Do you think that this theory is more responsible for the maths anxiety that many of us experience than the theory that people are either left-brained or right-brained?
The idea of people being left-brained or right-brained has long been discredited (see for example this article by Dr Sarah McKay ‘The Creative-Right Vs Analytical-Left Brain Myth: Debunked!’
So I think my theory is better…but it is not really a theory: it’s a suggestion.
Have you received any response from any Greek scholars/ readers? Knowing many Greeks and how passionate they are about their history and culture has your theory caused any backlash? Or perhaps they have supported your thoughts? Could you tell us about this?
No. I wouldn’t expect a backlash: I’m not criticising anything Greek; I’m just suggesting that an ancient worldview shouldn’t be given undue credit when it comes to teaching mathematics.
God built the universe on numbers.
Is this concept discussed in any of your books – perhaps The Art of More - How mathematics created civilisation? So I can direct readers to a link if they would like to read more.
I only refer to the idea a little bit in 'The Art of More': it’s not a major theme. There’s no denying the influence of, say, Euclid [a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the "founder of geometry" or the "father of geometry" who was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I] on the history of mathematics in western Europe – and, as a consequence, on the history of the entire world. So the book discusses lots of Greek historical mathematical figures, and their influence — including the fact that Euclid is indirectly responsible for creating the Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland. (People will have to read the book to find out why!).
You hold a PhD in quantum physics as well as an author, journalist and broadcaster – clearly you are one of those rare people who excel both in English and in maths – a feat that escapes many of us. How do you think you were able to excel in both areas? What is your secret?
I don’t think there’s any secret. I think a lot of people can be “science-y” and creative at the same time. It’s just that we tend to make people choose one or the other at some point in their education. But that doesn’t mean they can’t re-discover the talent they didn’t exploit in later life.
An interesting fun fact about you is that you were the first person to be tasered in the UK! How did this happen? Could you tell us about this?
I was on an assignment for New Scientist magazine to interview the doctor who were testing a Taser’s effects for London’s Metropolitan Police, who were thinking of starting to use them. Originally the doctor had said I could taser him as a way of making the article more interesting. When it came to him, he didn’t fancy it, but suggested that he taser me instead. We had a photographer ready and poised, so I said yes. I didn’t realise just how painful it was going to be!
About Michael Brooks
Michael Brooks, who holds a PhD in quantum physics, is a science author, journalist and broadcaster with more than two decades’ experience.
He is a consultant writer at New Scientist magazine. He is the author of numerous books, including ‘The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook; Hollywood Wants to Kill You; Science(ish)’; ‘At The Edge of Uncertainty’; ‘The Secret Anarchy of Science; The Big Questions in Physics’; ‘Entanglement; 13 Things That Don't Make Sense’ and ‘Quantum Computing and Communications’. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Brooks’ speaking experience includes a sell-out talk at the Hay Festival and appearances at the Edinburgh Festival; the Cheltenham Literature Festival; the Shanghai Literature Festival; the Sunday Times Festival of Education and lectures at New York University (to the Masters in Science Journalism students), the American Museum of Natural History, Cambridge University, Kansas State University and the Singapore Science Centre, as well as a number of science festivals. He has given invited TEDx talks, carried out science journalism training for the British Council and is a regular event speaker on the UK entertainment circuit.
Brooks has made several appearances on BBC2’s Newsnight and BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme; the Fox Business Network in the US; Canada’s TVO; Channel 4, More 4, BBC Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 5 Live.
Find where you can buy Michael Brooks’ books on his website.