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"The Times," Wednesday 3rd January 2001

The following article appeared in the above issue of "The Times," a broadsheet  newspaper, printed in Britain.


By Simon de Bruxelles

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.

The study has raised concern that the widespread contempt in which children hold maths teachers may deter talented teenagers from studying the subject. John Berry, whose department ran the project, said: "Overall, the image we got from young people was a very negative one towards mathematicians and their role. Children did not have much idea of what mathematics was or what mathematicians do. We were surprised the image was fairly common in all countries; even those like Romania where maths teaching is very successful."

He added: 'The image of mathematicians was nerdish and one worrying aspect is that children may be put off studying maths if they think others will see them as being nerds."

It was with some relief that he was able to report: "As a mathematician myself, working in a mathematics environment, I do not recognise them at all. One of the reasons we did the research was because of the negative attitudes people have towards mathematics and mathematicians."

He was forced to admit that being a mathematician did little for his social life. "If you are at a party and tell people you're a mathematician, it's the worst turn-off you can imagine," he said.

Researchers will now look at ways to give mathematicians a more positive image. Susan Picker, an American Phd student who conducted the research, said: "All maths teachers who have seen these images at first found them amusing but soon realized that this is how their students see them, and it is a sobering thought.

"We would like to see businesses promoting the positive side of mathematics and showing how many of those who study it go on to become researchers, engineers, computer programmers and so on."

Portrait of a Mathematician

Unflattering portrait: how one child in the survey sees mathematicians

Article Simon de Bruxelles, January 2001
"The Times," Times Newspapers Ltd, January 2001

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