Profile: Three learned mathematics societies

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The Independent Online

It is a sign of the times that learned mathematics societies, which once were locked in rivalry, are now doing all they can to co-operate in the interests of their beleaguered subject.

The London Mathematical Society (LMS) was founded back in 1865, in the heyday of learned science societies, around the time that the Institute of Physics and the Institute of Chemistry also came into being. The LMS drew its members mainly from academe, and concentrated its efforts on promoting and publishing research in pure mathematics.

"We were a self-help group in many ways, concerned with mathematics rather than mathematicians," says Peter Cooper, executive secretary. "We have retained our roots: our main purpose is still to promote the subject, rather than set standards or police it."

But some in the mathematical community felt that the LMS did not reflect their interests, which lay outside the field of pure maths. Almost 100 years after the founding of the LMS, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) was born, with the wider brief of furthering mathematics in industry, business, the public sector, education and research.

Whereas the LMS has 2,500 members, all of whom must have a mathematics doctorate, the IMA demands only a maths degree, and has more than 5,300 members (ten per cent of whom are from overseas). Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the IMA has 30 per cent of its members in academia, 15 per cent in schools, 15 per cent in finance, and the remainder in industry and commerce.

"We try to be all-embracing, so that wherever maths goes, the Institute will have a role," explains David Youdan, IMA executive secretary.

Rivalry with the LMS is now a thing of the past, he says. So much so, that the two societies have embarked on an 18-month discussion process to "reconsider structures", and even consider a merger. "The IMA would be totally supportive of a merger," says Youdan.

Whether or not such a merger comes about, the LMS and the IMA are already engaged in a joint initiative to promote their subject, together with the third and oldest mathematical society, the Royal Statistical Society (RSS). The three formed the Council for Mathematical Sciences in 1999. "Working together, we can have much more effect in making representations to government," acknowledges Peter Cooper at the LMS.

With funding from the Department for Education and Skills, the Council is developing a range of career materials, in pamphlets and websites, for use in schools. All three societies share widespread concerns about the low take-up of maths at A-level, and at university, and hope they can do their bit to stimulate young people's interest in the subject.

Career options for those with maths qualifications are far more diverse than many people realise, says Cooper: "The question is often asked, what do mathematicians do? The quick answer is, what do they not do?"

The Council is targeting year 10 pupils, with the aim of persuading more of them to continue with maths. As Youdan argues: "If you have mathematical fluency, it doesn't matter what job you do, those maths skills will be life skills."

The RSS is now working hard to "broaden its appeal", according to Ivor Goddard, director general. Founded in 1834 by politicians and social scientists who wanted to collate and tabulate facts about society, the RSS began to look at the methodological side of statistics in the early 20th century.

The subject was given a great boost by the advent of computers in the Sixties. About a third of the RSS's 6,000 members are involved in government statistics, and many more in industry (particularly the pharmaceutical industry), as well as in financial and actuarial processes.

"Statistics is a very modern discipline, even though we are a very old society," says Goddard.

At Nottingham Trent University, the RSS is running a census project in which children collect their own data and are taught to analyse it. The RSS has also published a pamphlet on how to measure risk, aimed at educating the general public.

"One of our difficulties is getting past the image that statistics is dull, and only deals with processing numbers," says Goddard. "We want to show people that it is a live subject."

London Mathematical Society: www.lms.ac.uk
Institute of Mathematics and its Applications: www.ima.org.uk
Royal Statistical Society: www.rss.org.uk

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