I wasn’t particularly good at maths when I was young. I loved puzzles and games but maths was never presented that way. I mean I was good at multiplying two numbers, and I picked up BODMAS (I think they use BIDMAS these days) rather quickly, but I never really enjoyed it.
After a few years of cruising through high school maths classes, I was offered a place to do the first half of Maths Methods a year early. I thought it might be what I was looking for, maybe I would find the puzzle-ness or game-ness of maths in a harder class. I went in bright eyed, but to no avail. It was the same monotonous 3 step process:
- Learn an equation.
- Memorise it.
- Apply it.
By the end of the year I was taken aside and told that if I didn’t do well on the exam I’d have to redo the subject in year 11. Not wanting to fail, I put in the effort, learned the equations, memorised them and applied them. I scraped through: 55%.
Come Year 11, I knew I would have to put my head down since I was now doing 3 & 4 Methods, and this would contribute to my ATAR. I went into it thinking it would be the same thing again, but something happened.
My teacher at the time, we’ll call him Mr. K, always seemed a little distant in the school yard. In class however, Mr. K showed me that maths isn’t just the old three-step process. There’s beauty in it, and all you had to do was ask: Why? Up until that point I had been asking, without knowing it, How?. When you asked why, maths turned into the game I was looking for. A world of beauty opened up to me, and I realised that this was something I wanted to do.
People often ask, why do mathematicians describe maths as beautiful? I think this is the answer. When you look at it from the perspective of a mechanical operation, which we were all taught to do, it’s hard to see why you could get pleasure from it. When you look at it like a puzzle, all of a sudden, the solutions seem beautiful and elegant. Finding the right piece and placing it in the right place is an inherently satisfying thing.
So why am I interested in mathematics? I like puzzles.
Daniel Glasson was a recipient of a 2018/19 AMSI Vacation Research Scholarship.