What’s missing from the equation?

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Royal Institute to attend not only their Masterclass taster evening for anyone interested in STEM outreach. As I’m lucky enough to give a class in Bayesian Belief Networks, I was asked to go along and mingle and generally encourage others to start helping, volunteering, developing and delivering a class.

In all honesty, I find it hard to explain just what a return on investment delivering a Masterclass is. Admittedly the first time I gave a class I was utterly terrified – frankly I didn’t sleep much the night before. Yes, developing the class took a lot longer than I had expected, but the amazing staff at the Royal Institute were on hand to help (and they even gave me feedback on the first few sessions so I could tailor what I presented). Truthfully, I never seem to have “nailed” the presentation – I am always tinkering based on what happened in the last session, or when another little idea pops into my head on the train.

So why bother? Well, the return is seeing young people genuinely engaging with, lighting up and enjoying a Saturday morning of mathematics. I’ve had the delight of being asked such insightful, probing questions about Bayes theorem I’ve had to take a deep breath and have my brain working overtime to give a good enough answer. More than that, my presentation skills have had to really be honed to make sure I’m giving the best possible explanation. One of my favourite quotes is from Einstein – “if you can’t explain to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself.” Very true, and put to the absolute test in front of an expectant group of Year 9 students.

So given I get so much from being able to help, I was completely bowled over by the generosity of the Royal Institute to offer those speakers who went along to the taster evening a short tour of the archives by one of the Curators. Upon arriving I wasn’t really sure what to expect – what I found was an Aladdin’s cave of wonder. Possibly one of the most passionately infectious people I have ever had the delight of meeting talked to us about some of the amazing artefacts that are housed at the Royal Institute. We were able to hold some of Faraday’s original notebooks, actual pieces of meteors which had landed on earth more than 10,00 years ago and copies of Euler’s algebra printed in the 1790’s. It is an utter treasure trove of mathematics and science, I know all of us who were there could have stayed a lot longer. But, we had promised to attend the main event. That said, now I know that you can arrange to visit the archives I’ll be back – apparently, there might be something from Bayes there.

Having spent most of last week involved in practical science and maths – from engineering trials, through to model development and going to the Ri, overall I spent quite a bit of time working with and thinking about equations. I also spent a lot of time travelling and as a consequence reading. There seems to be an increasing desire to express “things” mathematically, for example how to make the perfect cup of tea, when actually what is presented in neither an equation nor mathematically correct.

Given that maths is an intrinsic part of everyday life shown from the wonders of nature through to the technology we use, why do we not give mathematics the elegance it deserves? If I tried to mathematically capture a Ri masterclass what would the variables need to be? Passion, enthusiasm (from the presenter and the class) and fun would certainly have to go into the result. What about the topic? Potentially a variable as well. But how to measure the inputs and how should they be combined? What would be missing from the equation? Perhaps it’s best to accept that some of the truly great things we do in work can only be measured in feelings and leave the jaw-dropping awe of a beautifully elegant equation to bask in all its glory. I’d love to know what your favourite equation is.

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