Mathematics, the makeover

Sums, it seems, are hot. Arithmatic rocks. A sexy band of number crunchers is taking maths away from the geeks and frumps
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The Independent Online

It has long vied with physics for the dubious honour of having the worst image on the curriculum. But that was before stars such as the former Wonder Years actress Danica McKellar stepped in to give maths a makeover.

The actress turned mathematician, who is best known for playing Winnie Cooper in the hit US television show, has made it her mission to sex up maths with a series of books aimed at convincing girls that the subject isn't just for geeks. As the raunchy cover of her latest how-to guide – Hot X: Algebra Exposed – makes clear, being a maths whiz doesn't make you a frump.

Penguin, which has just released McKellar's first book, Maths Doesn't Suck, in the UK, thinks her approach will revolutionise the way girls look at the subject. It plans to publish the author's two other books, which have both made The New York Times's bestseller list.

McKellar said she wanted to "break stereotypes... [that have] trained girls from a young age to believe that maths is too hard, too boring and just for boys, and that if they are smart, they can't be popular or beautiful," while making maths "more fun to learn". She said teaching maths in a "non-mathsy" context – her books are based on teen magazines and use examples intended to capture girls' interest, from crushes on boys to lipstick – attracted the "most mathsphobic girls and helped them to succeed".

The actress, who has had a paper published in the esteemed Journal of Physics which proved a theorem on magnetism, joins a host of big names who have helped to boost the subject's appeal. They include the actress Natalie Portman, who has guest-edited the teenage maths magazine Scholastic Math as well as gracing its cover. The Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz has also done her bit by starring as Hypatia, the fourth-century Greek mathematician and astronomer, in the 2009 film Agora. Simon Singh, who unpicked Fermat's last theorem to great acclaim in a bestselling book, and Marcus du Sautoy, the populist Oxford University mathematician, are also credited with inspiring more students to study maths.

But Mary Wimbury, director of the UK Mathematics Trust, said girls still needed encouraging by the likes of McKellar because they were "easily put off". She added: "We still need to get over the attitude that women can never do maths. There can be a perception that it's quite a geeky thing to do. Plus all the big names are still male, so it's good to have Danica to challenge the stereotypes."

Only 40.6 per cent of students who sat maths A-level last summer were female, compared with the 59.4 per cent of males who took the exam. The proportion was worse for further mathematics, where 31.9 per cent were female and 68.1 per cent male. And the low take-up of A-level maths feeds through into higher study, where 39 per cent of maths undergraduates are women.

Rob Eastaway, who runs Maths Inspiration, which puts on lectures in the subject for teenagers, said the problem was one of self-confidence. "Boys tend to think they are better than they actually are and girls do themselves down. With girls it's not innate ability that's lacking; it's confidence," he said.

But he added that the tide was turning in favour of the discipline, helped by the fact that the media was now "on side" with programmes such as Radio 4's In Our Time, which with the help of Professor du Sautoy last month devoted an hour to the subject of imaginary numbers such as the square route of minus one. "I can't remember the last time broadcasters would have unashamedly gone into so much detail about maths," Mr Eastaway added.

And it isn't just broadcasters who are championing maths. McKellar made it into the men's magazine Maxim earlier this year, posing in her underwear in one shot, while accessorising her college cardigan with nothing but a bra in another. The actress claimed the Maxim shoot, which some commentators have argued sends girls a mixed message, showed girls that "smart is sexy". She said the "juxtaposition of an actress who became a maths author makes maths a bit more sexy", adding: "I want girls to get the message loud and clear. You don't have to choose. You can be whoever you want to be, and studying maths makes you more fabulous."

Ms Wimbury backed up McKellar's logic, adding that her books would help to persuade girls that "being smart is cool". She said: "I was very impressed with Maths Doesn't Suck. She explained it in a way to appeal to her audience and was mathematically rigorous."

Theatre and comedy have also embraced maths in recent years. The theatre company Complicite has just finished its third run of A Disappearing Number, a play that kicks off with a maths lecture and goes on to explore the unlikely kinship between the Brahmin mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who has been called "the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics", and the Cambridge don G H Hardy during the First World War. Matt Parker, who describes himself as a "stand-up mathematician", played to a packed house at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in August, while Sara Santos, a fellow in mathematics at the Royal Institution, has taken maths to the streets with her popular maths busking, which sees street performers engage passers-by with maths puzzles.

Ms Wimbury said the UK Mathematics Trust hoped to set up a European Girls Mathematical Olympiad in 2010, following the success that a guest team from Britain had at a similar event in China this summer.