Mathematically speaking

What are eight eights? Sixty-four! Hi. Welcome to maths class. Take a seat between the tedium and the building anxiety. Prepare yourself for rows of numbers, alarming test questions, and an unnecessary degree of hectoring regarding the exact moment at which Billy and Betty pass each other on separate trains heading in opposite directions.

There. That’s it. That’s maths, right? 

But of course… they teach maths differently these days. Not so concerned with reciting your times-tables, maths is more holistic, now. Maths, they tell you, is all around us. 

Psht! What a joke! What a namby pamby approach to the straightforward business of dealing with two numbers and getting the same answer every time! I mean, there is a right answer for heaven’s sake! That’s the point! Why tell stories about the numbers? Why get to know how they feel? Just get the answer right and go home! Honestly. It’s a symptom, I’m sure you’ll agree, of a world that mollycoddles children into believing the universe should bend to their whims. They don’t have to merely do a simple maths test. Oh no! They must be entertained and made to feel included as well! 

But here’s the thing. Maths is all around us. It’s beautiful and mysterious and surprising and it took me decades to figure out that in fact this is why people who are interested in maths are interested in maths in the first place. Also nobody cares about Billy or Betty or where they’re going on a train or where the fulcrum is on a see saw or what eight eights are. I certainly don’t, because when I was a kid learning maths, maths wasn’t all around me. It was only in two places: (1) in a hot classroom and (2) in the milk bar when I only had two dollars and the bloke behind the counter was waiting for me to decide what to do with it (raspberry icy pole thanks for playing). Maths was literally nowhere else. If it had been, I would have avoided it, or set fire to it, or run away. 

So hoorah for the brave new world of namby pamby maths pedagogy. This is a Public Service Announcement. Maths is all around us. 

Maths is in the complex fingerprint of every leaf. The symmetry and repetition of its motion. The way it flutters and sails and flutters and sails and dovetails and backflips to earth like an accident and a design all at once.

Maths is in the tides that sweep the beaches according to, guess what, the maths of the moon.

Maths is in the chaos and wildness. It’s wild, maths, and its rules and variations and patterns are in the wildest things. The big bang. The clouds swept across the sky in a certain way reflecting the patterns of the sand on the beach. The way the veins in your grandmother’s hand look like squiggling rivers from the air. I don’t care for Billy or for Betty and I certainly never liked maths, but looking for meaning in the freewheeling strangeness of reality is quite a project, you have to admit. It’s a brave and bold one, too. Good on us.

There’s maths in poetry and music and art and comedy. Musical rhythm, speech rhythms, the power of the pause. If you’ve ever stood in a gig and felt the power of a pause surge through a thousand warm bodies in the dark, you’ve had a mathematical moment, Billy and Betty be damned.

I watched a little girl swinging a lanyard at a train station the other day. Around her, adults rushed, or stood, staring, or talked into phones, and this kid watched this lanyard swinging from her finger. Back, and forward. Back, and forward. Like a see saw. Like a swing. Like the tide. She was mesmerised. She broke the pattern sometimes, flicking the lanyard into a wild circle. I realised, eventually, that the whole time she had been doing it, I had been watching, and so had others, and I found myself wondering if they, too, had been watching with a noise in their heads to go with the motion of the lanyard. My brain had been, I realised, providing a little noise for the motion. A tiny moment on a train platform where my brain made music out of motion. When humans have no phone reception, sometimes it’s okay because what they do have is a fulcrum. Maths is all around you. Sometimes, it can be pretty lovely. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This was originally in The Big Issue, which is sold in the street by vendors. Please buy a copy when you can. It makes a big difference and it’s full of interesting stuff.