Feb 22, 2010
On the scale of popularity among students of all ages, mathematics still lags relatively far behind. Many people feel that the study of numbers, quantities, and figures is too abstract, inaccessible, and not very useful in real life – despite mathematicians’ assertions to the contrary, and despite the excellent career prospects found in the field. “We should make it clear to the public at large what this subject has to offer,” says Ehrhard Behrends, professor of functional analysis and probability theory at Freie Universität.
But Behrends took his insight one step further, with an eye to improving the situation. The professor has now become one of the most dedicated ambassadors for his discipline: With a column in a daily newspaper that serves a broad audience across several regions, the highly regarded website “mathematik.de,” and finally, the big exhibition “mathema,” designed by Behrends for the German Museum of Technology in Berlin, which ran from November 2008 through July 2009, Behrends has done his share for math in Germany, to the point that the country is now considered the European leader in popularizing mathematics. That being the case, it was only logical for the European Mathematical Society (EMS) to tap the Berlin resident to head its RPA (Raising the Public Awareness) committee, as it did recently.
Based on the excellent experience Behrends has had with his mathematics site, he is now planning a similar, but larger, project to cover all of Europe: “mathematics-in-europe.eu” is both the name and the URL of the project.
The site is aimed at an audience of both high school and university students and at both professional mathematicians and laypersons with an interest in the subject. The main language will be English, but major articles and the menu system will also appear in other languages, in keeping with the variety of official languages spoken throughout Europe.
One major area of focus for the new site will be to offer help to anyone who is having trouble solving a mathematical problem, whether as part of their homework from high school or for their studies at a university. Behrends also plans to offer self-study materials on mathematics, aimed, for instance, at those for whom school “doesn’t provide enough meat,” as he says. In addition to educational materials, which teachers can also use, there are plans for “mathematics-in-europe.eu” to offer an international lexicon of commonly used mathematical terms in the most widely used European languages.
Thus equipped, the site will also play host to competitions and contests: from entertaining challenges such as the mathematical Advent calendar that is offered by the Matheon research center each year to serious contests for ambitious high school students or advanced university students to measure themselves against other math whizzes at the European level.
Another section of the site will offer a glimpse of the everyday lives of professional mathematicians. Its initial content will include general information on the many jobs available to mathematicians and brief contributions from real mathematicians about their day-to-day work. “Hardly anyone actually knows what an actuary does at an insurance company, or what a financial mathematician’s job is,” says Behrends, “but after visiting our site, they will!” The site wouldn’t be complete without current research information and information on activities at higher education institutions, and Behrends and his Web team have considered adding discussion forums and a blog – elements that are practically a matter of course for websites today.
Initial financing is to be provided through support from Munich Re: The insurance company, which already appears as a sponsor on the “mathematik.de” website, is contributing a five-digit sum per year. In light of the ambitious plans for the site, Behrends is hoping that additional supporters will join in at some point, though. After all, getting involved in this way is not merely a selfless gesture: “Insurance companies and many other sectors always need good mathematicians, so they can think of it as an investment in their own future.”
The new website is scheduled to go live sometime during the summer. The graphic design and technical implementation will be handled by external companies, some of them spin-offs of Freie Universität. Behrends’s own team will, however, definitely be involved in the core functions of the new site, the mathematician says. He wants to know that the key members of the team are right behind him.
Prof. Dr. Ehrhard Behrends
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Freie Universität Berlin
Tel.: +49 (0)30 838-753 61