Michael Brooks is a science writer with a PhD in quantum physics, and the author of several books, including the bestselling 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense and The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook, a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year. We asked him a few questions about his latest release, The Art of More.
What stopped you enjoying maths as a student?
I wouldn’t say I ever really enjoyed maths, as such. I learned how to do the various things I had to do to pass the exams, which got me a long way. And then, at university, I was suddenly expected to be able to think about the meaning of what I had been doing, which I just wasn’t equipped for. So I gave up at that point.
And what made you want to revisit it as an adult?
I had an epiphany while giving a talk about physics. It seems obvious now, but it suddenly struck me how powerful maths was: everything we have ever achieved in understanding the universe is underpinned by mathematics. It made me want to explore what other human achievements were underpinned by maths. I discovered the answer is pretty much all of them. When you think how few of us feel comfortable with maths, that’s a huge surprise. So The Art of More was really about exploring the paradox of how maths became so important to us, given how difficult we seem to find it.
Do you think maths should be taught differently in schools?
I can’t help thinking we’re doing something wrong. Ironically, you can see it in the numbers: a survey by Cambridge University found that, overall, around 11 percent of school students suffer high maths anxiety. That means they experience negative emotions – and possibly elevated heart rate, clammy hands and dizziness – when asked to interact with mathematical problems. That percentage increases the further you get through school. Most people seem to leave school with an actual fear of maths: around 93 percent of the adult US population describe themselves as suffering from some level of “math anxiety”. It’s not so different over here in the UK, I suspect. Only 22 per cent of UK adults are functionally numerate, with the skills to do the maths that everyday life requires. I don’t have all the answers by any means, but what we’re currently doing surely can’t be the best approach, can it?
How did you choose which stories to include in the book?
I thought it was important to show how utterly human mathematics is, so I tried to focus on the stories where mathematicians were doing relatable things. I talk about Johannes Kepler inventing integral calculus to save money at his wedding; William Hamilton’s children asking him every morning at breakfast if he had solved the problem of four-dimensional arithmetic yet; Einstein’s embarrassing failure when he tried to design an aeroplane; Florence Nightingale keeping her nurses locked away at night for fear of them hooking up with the soldiers in the hospital…Maths doesn’t happen in an ivory tower; it’s very much something we’ve invented because humans need useful and useable solutions to our most difficult everyday problems. How else can you explain that one of the most important inventions in statistics came from a Guinness brewer?
Who is your favourite mathematician mentioned in the book?
That’s difficult, but I do have a soft spot for a Renaissance Italian mathematician called Nicòlo Tartaglia. He used algebra to work out how to do the most damage with a single cannon shot, and then was so appalled at what he had done that he burned all his notebooks.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing the book?
That the so-called genius Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t do fractions!
If there was one thing you want readers to take away from the book, what would it be?
Even if you’re not comfortable with doing mathematics – and why would you be, it doesn’t come naturally? – you can still enjoy the wonder and the power we find in numbers.