Ever since childhood I have been fascinated by the idea of creating buildings, but architecture always required a knowledge of maths, a skill which for some reason has always escaped me.
At ten I received extra maths tuition to ensure my passing the 11+ exam to enter grammar school. Cousin Ben, taciturn, serious and reproving, was press ganged into the role of tutor. I visited him weekly for my hourly lesson which I dreaded.
Sadly all that this extracurricular activity achieved was to instil in me a lifelong dislike of anything to do with numbers.
Despite my truculence, Ben somehow engineered my entry to grammar school where I was introduced to the complex world of ‘metry’s’ such as geometry and trigonometry plus algebra, fractions, decimals, square roots and cubes. All of which were and still remain a complete mystery.
Miss Hartill, our maths teacher, was to say the least ‘unusual’. During lessons, she would suddenly put her hand to her ear exclaiming ‘listen girls!’ whereupon we rushed to the window to revel in the sight of a thrush, blackbird or magpie. But to give her credit, I may have been a total disaster at figures, but I became unusually adept at recognising birdlife.
I left school at 16 clutching nine ‘0’ levels including a failure in maths, having achieved 11%, presumably because I wrote my name and address correctly at the top of page one. This meant that the range of career opportunities open to me was limited, certainly no science or architecture.
This did not really register as a hardship, largely because in those days we young ladies were not encouraged to go to university. Our destiny was to become secretaries or hairdressers, find a husband and settle down. But my year at the Manchester College of Commerce was not wasted, for, when I eventually went to Durham University aged 31, I was one of the few undergraduates able to type as quickly as someone could speak – invaluable for taking notes and writing assignments.
My choice of subject was decided according to the length of the departmental queues on enrolment day. Law was very long, so I opted for the shortest queue which happened to be Sociology, enabling me to get home to my children by 3.30pm. Thus are our significant life choices determined.
After year one, I had to select whether to continue with Psychology or Sociology. I chose the former, until realising that maths was essential for understanding statistical method. A long suffering mathematician friend offered to teach me the basics of ‘long division’ but after four weeks he gave up in despair, declaring that I was a lost cause.
This inability has dogged me all my life. As Director of a Citizens Advice Bureau my heart sank when clients arrived with debt counselling problems or tax issues. Any mail I received such as bills or bank statements, was immediately consigned to the waste bin.
Imagine my joy therefore when, very recently, I learned of a condition called DYSCALCULIA. It sounds like an exotic flowering plant, but is in fact a disability suffered by the 6% of the population who have difficulty in comprehending arithmetic.
The sad thing is that this never existed when I was young – not one single person in my school was ever diagnosed with Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD, Autism or any of the conditions that today seem almost mandatory. They had simply not yet been invented. Instead we were classed as ‘slow learners’, ‘late developers’ or just plain ‘thick’.
But somehow my love for architecture flourished. In 1985 I organised an exhibition from Israel called “Build Ye Cities’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects. A week of lectures was followed by tours to six UK universities where visiting architects, included luminaries such as Moshe Safdie, Michael Levin and Arie Rahamimoff, spoke about Israeli Architecture in the 30’s, Planning in Jerusalem, Solar Energy Architecture and Kibbutz Design. I was hooked.
Today, now that I accept that I might be Dys-whatever, I welcome the challenge. Six years ago I mastered the art of sudoku and am now totally obsessed and up to ‘Super Fiendish’ level. Yes, I know it is logic and not maths, but it is still numbers as far as I am concerned and is something that gives me an enormous sense of achievement.
Maths dates back 3,000 year or more but it was Pythagoras (with his theorem) who stimulated centuries of discussion among physicists and philosophers, and later Galileo who, in the 16th century, declared that the universe is a ‘grand book’ written in the language of mathematics.
I nod sagely, but to be honest, remain mystified. Some of my scientific friends try to explain that maths is everywhere, including art and nature, so some time ago I gingerly ventured into the world of ‘The Fibonacci Spiral’ – nature’s numbering system that determines the positions of leaves on stalks and the arrangement of seeds on sunflowers – all organised in a precise mathematical way. It was an eye opener.
Therefore recently I decided to try and extend my knowledge by visiting the new maths pavilion at London Science Museum designed by the late architect, Zaha Hadid. She wrote “when I was growing up in Iraq we played with math problems as we would play with pen and paper to draw – it was like sketching.”
On entering the pavilion the first sight you encounter is a magnificent ceiling sculpture swirling around a 1929 Handley Page aeroplane- built using ground breaking aerodynamic research to produce a safe aircraft. Hadid’s sculpture represents the mathematical equations that describe its airflow – it is a an unforgettable sight.
Beneath it cases display some of the seminal inventions that have transformed our lives.
A 1666 calculator which Samuel Pepys described as “Pretty but not very useful”, and another huge calculator built the year I was born, brought home to me how much can change in a lifetime. Calculators have become smaller and smaller until now you add up using your iPhone. The same goes for the progress of computers since pioneer Charles Babbage originated the concept of computing way back in 1791
calculator born same year as me!
Next the Astrolabe – not just a new word to use in scrabble, but an instrument used in astronomy to measure altitudes and aid navigation. Their use goes back to Classical Greece – it was said that “if you hold an astrolabe you have the universe in your hands.
An astrolabe, 17c.
Something more prosaic to hold in your hands is a pint of beer and the museum displays standard measures for this purpose. It is quite touching in these days of decimalisation to know that a UK regulation was passed specifying that draught beer and cider may be sold by the imperial pint in perpetuity. Yippee! how reassuring it is to know that some of our great British traditions remain untouched.
. British beer measures
There is also a World War 11 German Enigma machine – famously decoded by Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park. You can also learn of Euclid’s contribution to geometry (2000 years ago) and see JWTurner’s sketches from his Royal Academy lectures on perspective. (see below)All this and much more.
So where does this leave me? My visit was a revelation and for the first time I began to feel disappointed that all my life I had chosen to dismiss maths as irrelevant. Only now am I beginning to comprehend its fundamental role in underpinning so much that we take for granted both in nature and science. Perhaps had I known this earlier, I might have exceeded my 11% mark. This we shall never know.