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Tuesday, February 16, 1999 Published at 18:09 GMT


Suddenly maths is sexy

Author Simon Singh: "passion"

Publishers and film-makers have decided that mathematics is cool.

The movie Pi won an award for its director, Darren Aronofsky, at the Sundance Film Festival and is a surprise hit in spite of its unashamedly mathematical content.

It may still be a publishing rule that you lose a reader for every equation printed in a book. But writers on the subject are now hot property, provided readers are not reminded of long, boring afternoons in a dusty classroom.

[ image: Peter Tallack:
Peter Tallack: "It's an art"
"They'll find none of those equations and proofs that they used to find in their school textbooks," promises Peter Tallack of Weidenfeld and Nicolson Publishing.

"Instead they are going to find lots of analogies and metaphors and good stories, and they're going to realise that maths actually is fun and surprising and very creative. It's actually an art, really, it's like a language."

School sums

There is also a battle going on for the hearts as well as the minds of school pupils, to persuade them that maths is fun.

Simon Singh, who wrote one of the most popular books on the subject, about the quest to solve Fermat's Last Theorem, has taken a class at Twyford High School in London to try to enthuse them with the problem bequeathed by the 17th Century French mathematician.

"Real mathematics - what mathematicians do - is really they're solving puzzles," he said. "And these puzzles are things that computers can't do - if computers could do them there wouldn't be a problem.

"They require things like obsession, passion, drive, motivation, commitment - and that's what real mathematicians are like."

[ image: Teacher Nicola Daniels:
Teacher Nicola Daniels: "Not enough time"
But communicating that four times a week, especially when exams are looming, is not so easy.

"I think it would be really nice to be able to do that sort of thing for a lot of lessons because they are completely captivated in there," said the class's regular teacher, Nicola Daniels, watching Mr Singh at work.

"Unfortunately time doesn't really allow us to do that."

And whatever the current fashionable status of maths there is a shortage of people to teach the subject - which does not bode well for attempts to drive up standards and encourage passion, drive and motivation.

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