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Falling in love with Mathematics

by Vijay Garg
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Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes was so engrossed in analysing a geometrical diagram that he did not notice the invading Roman soldier who swiftly killed him. His grave was surmounted by a sphere and a cylinder that Archimedes had requested to showcase his love for Mathematics.
Twenty centuries later, in 1789, a 13-year-old French girl wondered what was it about Mathematics that captivated Archimedes fatally. Sophie Germain would fall so much in love with this subject that she would defy all social norms to pursue her mathematical studies alone. Sophie’s work on Fermat’s Last Theorem would build a solid foundation for future mathematicians exploring number theory. And her courage to be the only woman in France to study mathematics, even if in the guise of a man, would inspire many more girls to do the same.
This love of numbers and this affinity for geometrical shapes is universal. There is no other country with a richer history and greater passion for mathematics than India. Indeed, it was in India that zero was first seen as a number. And from zero came everything else. Once zero was in place, ancient Indians quickly progressed to studying higher mathematics. Early research into the idea of negative numbers, arithmetic, algebra, calculus and trigonometry were all conducted by Indian mathematicians. In the seventh century, the astronomer Brahmagupta introduced rules for solving quadratic equations and for computing square roots, both of which are still taught in our schools. He was also the first to recognize the scientific phenomenon of gravity, describing it as “gurutvâkarcaGam”. Mathematics and science have always been correlated and interconnected.
Limited knowledge of the basics
Cut to today, there is a distinct and dire need for India to recommit to its love for mathematics. The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) concluded that the majority of Class VIII students can’t do basic math. More worryingly, another survey revealed that more than 80 percent of Indian students in Classes VII to X are “fearful” of math. This self-doubt does not augur well for our future generations. Science and technology – the essential requirements to the future success of India – cannot thrive without a solid foundation in mathematics. To be clear, ‘math hesitancy’ is not an India-specific trend. A recently released comprehensive survey of school-going children in the United States reported an unprecedented 7-point decrease in math scores.
We need to counter the myth that mathematics is pursued for the sake of just Mathematics. Mathematics goes beyond the classroom to prepare a child for excelling in work and life. This ‘numberful’ subject hones the skills of developing hypotheses, identifying patterns, solving problems and thinking rationally. Framing an equation, identifying the knowns and unknowns, and taking systematic steps to solve the problem is not a mathematical skill. It is a life skill. Therefore, studying mathematics will not only produce more technologists to take India forward, but also nurture citizens who can think creatively and critically. 2 + 2 = 4, no matter what else you want it to be.
The big question is – how can we make India fall in love with Mathematics? For one, solving this problem starts at home. Parents can be – and must be – math heroes for their kids. It is our duty, as parents, to inspire our children to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers joyously. Imagine the excitement of a six-year-old when you help her discover that (17+20) – 1 is far easier to calculate than 17+19. Studies show that students perform better at school when parents spend a short time every day doing math with their children. A household that solves math problems together is a household that produces future problem solvers for the country. We also need thousands of more math teachers who are not only motivated about what they do but also share their passion with their students. Involved parents + passionate teachers that is the formula to overcome math hesitancy.
We don’t just need more math teachers and math parents. We need more math major doctors, more math major CEOs, more math major artists and more math major Members of Parliament. Indeed, the passion for mathematics should be nurtured beyond the school curriculum so that the leaders of tomorrow can hope that every problem has a solution. The word mathematics comes from the Greek word manthanein, meaning ‘to learn.’ In that sense, every learner is a ‘math person’. And everything is mathematics.

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