Crash Bonsai

Mathematicians: Huge nerds in the U.S., rock stars in China

I got a fascinating piece of email from a reader the other day — Linda Chen, a mathematician at Columbia University. She pointed me to a study recently done by the Center for Teaching Mathematics at Plymouth University, in which researchers polled young students to find their views about math teachers. The result?

Mathematicians are fat, scruffy and have no friends — in any language. Youngsters from seven countries, asked to come up with a portrait of the typical mathematician, showed a badly dressed, middle-aged nerd with no social life.

Schoolchildren as far apart as Romania, England and America took part in the study conducted by a researcher from the Centre for Teaching Mathematics at Plymouth University. The 300 children, aged 12 and 13, also drew pen and ink portraits of the “archetypal mathematician”.

One English pupil added a caption that read: “Mathematicians have no friends, except other mathematicians, not married or seeing anyone, usually fat, very unstylish, wrinkles in their forehead from thinking so hard, no social life whatsoever, 30 years old, a very short temper.”

Most children drew white men with glasses, often with a beard, bald head or weird hair, and shirt pockets filled with pens, who were working at a blackboard or computer. Finnish children had an even more disturbing view of maths teachers: several portrayed them forcing children to do sums at gunpoint.

Nice. However, things aren’t this bad all over, as Chen found when she recently went to China. She was attending the International Congress of Mathematicians, where they hand out the Fields Medals, effectively the Nobel Prizes for math. It was held in Beijing, and the public reception was astonishing. As Chen wrote:

Of course, visiting China is politically and culturally interesting in itself, but on the mathematical side, I was astounded by the treatment of math by the government and the press. My flight didn’t arrive in time for the opening ceremonies, but besides hearing about it from friends, when I turned on the TV in my hotel room a few hours after the ceremonies, there was coverage on very single channel including clips of the ceremonies as well as interviews with famous mathematicians. Many of them live in the US, but are treated as celebrities in China — there were TV crews at some talks. To get the approximately 4000 mathematicians from the conference center to the Great all of the People in Tiananmen Square for the ceremonies, traffic in Beijing was halted for the motorcade of buses. Furthermore, Jiang Zemin, president of China at the time, sat on stage quietly for two hours, then personally awarded the Fields Medals.

All this occurred because China is a communist country that decided to use its control over the press to emphasize its policy that math is a priority and to publicize China’s ability to attract international events (didn’t China just get chosen for the World’s Fair really recently? I didn’t know the World’s Fair still took place.) Even the fact that every single Beijing subway and bus operator knew that mathematicians wearing badges could ride for free would be difficult to replicate here. The effect of the wall-to-wall coverage of the conference was definitely apparent during my return — from other Americans at the airport and on the plane who learned that I was a mathematician, I heard, “You were with the big math conference? I read about that,” or “Oh, I saw that on TV” or even more specific comments. Imagine W mumbling something about “fuzzy math,” math news on the front page of all the local papers every day for a week, and mathematicians getting waved on through subway turnstiles in New York City by smiling transit workers and you see the difference.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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