Geoff Smith on X + Y

Reposted from the UKMT’s Newsletter:

In March 2015, the film  X + Y  will appear in cinemas all over the UK. This is a romantic drama, and explores a collection of intense personal relationships. One of the main characters is a teenaged boy (played by Asa Butterfield) who competes enthusiastically in UKMT competitions, and who dreams of going to the International Mathematical Olympiad. Several leading actors decorate the cast (Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Rafe Spall, Jo Yang). The film was made with the co-operation of UKMT and the IMO, and logos and flags appear accordingly. The film has secured international distribution contracts, and will be seen in many countries, and on airlines.

This film grew out of the BBC2 documentary “Beautiful Young Minds”, and the common director is Morgan Matthews. If UKMT were to make such a film (an exceptionally bad suggestion), the emphasis would be much more on the mathematics and less on the relationships. Morgan Matthews has become very interested in the way people on the autistic spectrum can prosper in mathematics. There has been a natural concern in the maths community that portraying some mathematicians as being less than socially fluent is dangerous, because it could lead to the misapprehension that mathematicians are all strange.

My personal view is that the prefix “mis” in the previous sentence can be deleted. All mathematicians are strange because they place such an exceptional value on thought, ideas and understanding. I think that the maths community should be proud of the way it embraces people on the basis of their enthusiasm for and interest in mathematics. University maths departments are happy places, where the socially adroit rub along in harmony with people who live in more private spaces. The trick is mutual respect and affection. This is equally true of UKMT maths camps. Most students are relaxed and outgoing, with the full set of skills that allow them to prosper in the teenage social maelstrom. Some others are not, but everyone gets along almost all of the time, united by a passion for ideas and ingenuity. We all know maths people who sometimes appear confused and nervous, but who have beautiful mathematical insights.

Things would be even better if women and all racial groups were richly represented in the maths community, and UKMT has done excellent work on the gender issue by founding the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad and running the annual talent search examination, the UK Maths Olympiad for Girls. The mentoring schemes make an excellent education in mathematical problem solving available to all social groups. However, while social inclusion is very much “work in progress”, the incorporation of people on the autistic spectrum into the wider maths community seems to be a great success, and in my view, a cause for celebration.

Geoff Smith, Chair of the BMO and the IMO, University of Bath.

Disclaimer: Geoff was involved in assisting to make X + Y, so his views are not impartial.

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