Episodes: Journey in Mathematics

When I was little, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up (and felt bad when I couldn’t answer the question). Indeed, my only criterion was that “it didn’t have too much walking”, a goal I have certainly achieved.

Age 13, when careers really started to take off, I had made up my mind to become a doctor. Again, I have achieved this, though in those days a medical doctor was what I had in mind. Whether or not I’d be having banter with people with PhDs as to who “real doctors” were will never be known. I thought I could do well as a doctor, as I was good at science, and liked biology when it wasn’t about plants. Mathematics at that time was not on my radar, because I didn’t really get it.

I might have gone on to do medicine, except circumstances dictated otherwise. I remember watching an episode of Coronation Street with my mum, which featured a woman who’d lost her baby. Still feeling she was a mother, she stole someone else’s baby and ended up getting hit by a truck. Mum said to me “You know son, if you’re going to be a doctor, you’ll have to deal with difficult situations like this.”  I took this to mean that my mum didn’t think I could do it. It’s unlikely that this is what she meant, but my insecure 13-year-old self took it as a signal to start doubting. I chose my GCSEs with a view to doing medicine, even picking Latin instead of German because I thought that would help somehow.

I did the extra GCSE in Maths (Add Mazz) because it meant avoiding English Literature and having to read extra books. They had me doing English Literature anyway, but I dropped out after having enough of World War One poetry.

I remember the exact moment I discovered joy in Mathematics (though not the date), in Mr Caves’ class. We were studying the cosine rule for Add Maths, and I remember writing out the three ways of expressing it. To my surprise, I remembered the first off by heart:

a squared = b squared + c squared – 2 b c cos (A)

Then, I wrote out the second

b squared = a squared + c squared – 2 a c cos (B)

and even now, I can still feel my eyes light up as I wrote that!

The third followed:

c squared = a squared + b squared- 2 a b cos (C)

Discovering this regularity and logic, even now fills me with a sense of joy, I did not know this at the time, but I feel now that this is because it’s a glimmer of what God is- ordered, structured, logical, harmonious.

From then on, it became something of a passion: I grabbed the chance to do both A-Levels with gusto, and since I was a bit of a disaster in the Chemistry lab, it was a straight choice between Maths and French for what to study in University- I’d become too riddled with doubt by that point to study Medicine (there were issues with my general health as well), so that no longer figured. Edinburgh was kind enough to offer the option to try both in first and second year, so I took the chance to defer the decision by another two years.

Struggling through first-year french meant I said adieu to that, and maths was to be my degree. I loved it. Well, mostly. Strangely I didn’t really get the most “useful” subjects like Financial and Decision Maths, but Algebra, probability, and number theory (at least, until the poorly-taught fourth year course) really caught my attention. My fourth year project was based on using probability to prove things in number theory, which was a neat dovetailing of two of my favourite topics. I wanted to carry this on further, and so made the leap of doing a PhD- but that’s a story for another time.

As I mentioned earlier, I think the reason I appreciate maths all the more now is that it’s a reflection of God’s nature. So is running a race, writing a good book, painting a great picture, and scoring a great goal. This is why there is joy in appreciating all these things.

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