- Calculus has been hailed as the most breathtaking piece of human cultural achievement ever, and it started with the ancient Greeks
- Mathematics is the study of patterns
- At a higher level, accounting is not just about doing a sum, it is understanding a pattern and then identifying options to the client and delivering advice based on the pros and cons
By Jacqueline Fox
Clio Cresswell is a passionate mathematician, but confesses that she has no particular interest in numbers.
Cresswell, a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Sydney, had a somewhat unconventional introduction to maths as a teenager, which goes some way to explain her innovative approach to the subject.
Born in England, she grew up on a Greek island and then in France with “hippy parents — huge party animals” and had been studying visual art when she moved to Australia as a teenager.
She was then made to repeat year 11 at school “to cope with the language change”.
It proved to be the catalyst which sparked an enduring passion for mathematics. She went on to win the University Medal at the University of NSW and then embark on what she says is her “mission” to spread the word about mathematics.
The mathematics message
Her message to business people is “not to just count up to nine” — as if playing Sudoku — when using mathematics and its concepts in a business environment, particularly when communicating ideas.
“We are the only species which can understand abstract mathematics — even rats are believed to be able to count up to a point – so we shouldn’t be afraid of being innovative, drawing connections and metaphors and making it interesting beyond the numbers,” says Cresswell.
“I think that is more engaging for clients, for an audience, than just reciting the numbers. When you go beyond that, people can understand the way mathematics can be applied to business thinking in new ways, and that is an exciting opportunity.”
Cresswell’s mission to popularise her vision of mathematics has included stints as regular media commentator – ranging from The Panel on Australia’s Chanel 10 and the Science Show on ABC to TEDx – and her first book, Mathematics and Sex.
Now on the agenda is a one-and-a-half-hour play on the theory of calculus, designed to “blow the audience away and really make them understand in a new way”.
“I am fascinated by the impact of mathematics on society, and what mathematics can train,” she says.
“You become sensitised to life and you see so many different sides to it. All this left brain/right brain thing is an old fashioned stereotype which means that mathematics has been very much misunderstood.
The numbers don’t rule, they can inform and enlighten but it’s all about being human, and having ultimate choices.
“But mathematics has a lot of subtleties and a lot of applications in very diverse areas. It forms a huge chunk of things like the latest mobile phone, internet technology or cancer drugs – but is also applicable to the arts and humanities.”
Mathematics, to Cresswell, is much more than the manipulation of numbers. For her, the excitement comes from ideas which do not necessarily deliver definitive answers, but which move into areas such as conceptual physics and even philosophy.
“There are different levels of mathematics,” she explains.
“Some people love numbers, but I don’t know my times tables because I was hopeless at maths before I came to Australia, and I find numbers themselves quite boring. For me adding numbers up to nine is like putting pins in my eyes.
“My interest is in conceptual areas such as calculus, which is so breathtaking because it reveals unexpected sides of mathematics. It has been hailed as the most breathtaking piece of human cultural achievement ever, and it started with the ancient Greeks, was developed in the 17th century and then took 200 years to understand properly.”
An open-minded approach
Contrary to popular belief, Cresswell says mathematicians are generally more “open minded” because they are dealing with fluid concepts and “pausing and considering all of the subtleties” of a problem.
It is an approach, she says, which can also extend to accountants.
“Mathematics is the study of patterns. At a higher level, accounting is not just about doing a sum, it is understanding a pattern and then identifying options to the client and delivering advice based on the pros and cons.
“The client still makes a choice, and it is not dictated by the numbers but guided by the accountant’s understanding of the underlying patterns.
“In my own life, mathematics guides me to make an educated decision but I’m still in control of the situation and so are the accountants and their clients. The numbers don’t rule, they can inform and enlighten but it’s all about being human, and having ultimate choices.”
While she enjoys mathematical theories and concepts, Cresswell says that those more abstract approaches can be drivers for pragmatism.
“Making an idea into reality is the hard part and mathematics always plays a huge part in this,” she says.
“People go on about how Leonardo da Vinci invented the helicopter because he drew something which looked like one.
“But that is so far removed from actually doing it. There is the engineering, the maths and the science of actually constructing it, and that lies behind absolutely everything.”
This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Acuity magazine.