What Do I Tell My Parents?

Finn McGlade, The University of Melbourne

Here’s an excerpt from a REAL conversation I had with my mum.

My Mum: “Hi Finn, what have you been doing with your summer”

Me: “Maths is great, this summer I’ve been working on a refined alcove path model for affine Springer fibres.”

My Mum: “Oh yeah, sounds interesting, what’s an affine springer fibre?”

My response …

This interaction put me a reflective mood. Was the above definition really the best way of communicating my research? I wasn’t sure, judging by her reaction she seemed displeased with the definition, perhaps I needn’t have stated it in such generality. Maybe she would have been content with an example?

My supervisor once told me that one sentence answers are best when communicating your research to those outside of the know. I brainstormed this one

My Mum: “Oh yeah, sounds interesting, what’s an affine springer fibre?”

Me: “Hmmm good question mum, you could think of it as infinitely many spheres each glued to one another at a single point, like an infinitely long chain of spherical beads.”

This response seemed decent although in truth affine Springer fibres constitute a far more general class of objects. More over the reality is that even this response would appear to other worldly for my mum. “Why the hell would anyone be interested in spending there summer studying infinitely long chains of spherical beads”.

Such a reaction from my mum allowed me to ponder further on how we can present the world of abstract mathematics to the general public. The physicists need only evoke the wonders of black or the absurdity of the quantum world in order to captivate an audience.

However abstract mathematics often feels far removed from the realm of our physical experience, and as such the intricacy and inherent beauty of the structures involved is often hard to convey. This presents an issue for mathematics education. How are we meant to encourage people, particularly the younger generation, to become interested in the work that mathematicians do?

This, I think, is less related to the content we teach our youngins, and more to do with attitudes we foster. For instance, when I was in high school, I was more or less under the impression that mathematics was a “solved” field. That there weren’t any outstanding problems and that it was just a useful tool for the other sciences. This is rather depressing, given what I now understand as the wondrous landscape of mathematics.

Finn McGlade was one of the recipients of a 2017/18 AMSI Vacation Research Scholarship.

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