(Some of) my mathematical journey

In response to Amie Albrecht’s Maths Autobiography, I promised to write one of my own. Here is the start of a potted version, with plenty left out.

I was a pretty nerdy kid growing up in Lidcombe, with some pretty nerdy friends. It wasn’t just maths, it was Lego, Matchbox cars, and much later, cassette recorders, calculators, and computers that fascinated me. One of my formative experiences was watching 2001: a space odyssey in Cinerama. My school report card from Year 6 in Lidcombe Primary School (1971) say that I was “a very conscientious worker”, and in Year 1 of Homebush High School and Year 2 of Beacon Hill High School (now Years 7 and 8) I came first in mathematics. Maths at that stage was still very much rote learning and competition, rather than discovery, although I still remember Cuisenaire rods from early primary school, and an introduction to set theory later on.

As I went through high school, calculators and then computers began to appear in Australia. I distinctly remember programming a Canola calculator at school to print out successive approximations to Pi (via a series for arctan 1 ?), leaving it to run over the weekend, and it having exhausted a whole spool of paper on its very slow convergence. My sister Christine is 7 years older than me, and by the time I was in the later years of high school, she had already thought of becoming a computer programmer. In Year 11 of Beacon Hill High School, I attended a winter school on computer programming, on an IBM 360 at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney. The language we used was PL/0, but we also heard about the APL language, and the other students attending told me about exotic ideas as hypercubes and twin primes.

It was when I attended the AAMT Mathematics Summer School at ANU at the end of Year 11 that my mathematics world really opened up. “Prove or disprove, and salvage, if possible.” Smoke rings. Lanchester’s equations for conflict. Computers using punched paper tape. Spending an hour at the blackboard with other students, arguing about how to define the concept of area form scratch, and wondering how to prove that all polygons can be triangularized. I also found that most of my Year 11 mathematical peers had come from private or selective schools, and here I was, coming from the NSW state school system. Still, even though I left the Summer School feeling much like a small fish in a big sea, I was energized and motivated. I started to buy and collect books on mathematics. The first few I remember include “The Psychology of Learning Mathematics” by Richard Skemp, and “Concepts of Modern Mathematics” by Ian Stewart. In Year 12, I did reasonably well in the IBM School Mathematics competition, obtained a pretty good HSC score, and was dux of my school. I thought that I was well primed for university.

(end of part one – part two to follow, hopefully soon.)




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