Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chris Zeeman Lecture

I spent my time as an undergraduate at The University Of Warwick (cunningly not located in Warwick but on the outskirts of Coventry) studying mathematics. Last night, I went to London, to a Warwick Mathematics Institute alumni lecture given by Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman FRS, the founder of the mathematics department at Warwick.

The lecture was stimulating, an application of Catastrophe Theory to the teaching of mathematics. He brought out the problem of requiring (and hence having to teach) both technical skill and creativity to do mathematics. [As an embarrassing aside, I must admit to not being aware of Zeeman's famous quotation “Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity” even though I bought the book in which it appeared in January 1978]. He analysed "disillusionment" and "enlightenment" catastrophe theory, and hence he argued that it is the initial emphasis in mathematics teaching should be on creativity, then followed up by technical skill. He also said that when disillusionment strikes, the only way to combat it is to change fields, and that the technical skills need for the new field should follow after some basic exploration. Very stimulating.

It was also good to see many familar faces and to run in to Ian Caldwell and Peter Welch, both of whom I met in my professional life, and only recently discovered were ex-Warwick mathematicians.

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