|16 Nov 2020|
Making Maths Count
Mathematics, Greek & Porridge at Windlesham 1963-1968
Like two billion other people at the moment, I am a prisoner of mathematics. The COVID-19 pandemic is in full flow and medical experts are using mathematics to advise politicians on how to control our lives. Indeed one of these experts is himself an alumnus of Windlesham.
Maths was very much my strong suit at school and I was pleased to learn from my daughter that the Honours board still hangs in Pevensey with my name on it as a testament to that fact. She had asked to look me up when attending a conference at the school recently and this prompted Lee Haines, the alumni relations manager, to get in touch to try to tease out some reminiscences from me. Now I am a prisoner of the lockdown, I thought I might as well pass some time by taking a trip down memory lane.
I remembered reading nearly thirty years ago in one of the school magazines an appreciation of the life of Colonel Mike Francis, who taught me maths. I had a vague recollection of him mentioning me by name. Lee very kindly tracked down the magazine and posted it on the OWLS website; re-reading the article truly opened the floodgates of nostalgia for me.
The article itself on pages 10 & 11 of WHAM 1981 is well worth a read even if you never knew Colonel Francis. His portrait of the staff room in the late fifties will raise an eyebrow if not an outright laugh. For me what was special was he remembered me after so many others had subsequently passed through his capable hands and he claimed to have had no favourites. I was by no means his star pupil in terms of ability but obviously did well enough.
We always knew Colonel Francis as Fag End for reasons I never understood. I do not recall him smoking, unlike other members of staff I could mention. We did however enjoy imitating his very military bearing and habit of standing on one leg and swinging the other in a fairly stiff fashion as if taking a conversion on the rugby field.
He obviously took after Archimedes as he did a lot of thinking in his bath. He would often stride (not quite a march) into the classroom and begin the lesson “ … I was thinking in my bath last night …” He would then fix us with his piercing but benevolent stare as he threw out another little poser to torture our young minds, all the while standing on one leg and lining up the conversion with the other.
One I remember particularly well concerned road repairs to the roundabout on the A24 which he encountered on his journey to and from home. He challenged us as to which section of the roundabout we thought was likely to wear out fastest given that cars only travel round part of the roundabout. He would let us think for a while and then finally take the metaphorical conversion (with the metaphorical ball no doubt sailing between the posts). Standing on both legs again, he would say “well, I think the answer is this …” and get us to challenge his reasoning.
An excellent preparation for real world problems where answers aren’t to be found in the text book. (Incidentally, regarding the A24 roundabout he argued that almost everybody going somewhere comes back the same way, meaning they make a complete circuit of the roundabout in a there-and-back journey so wear and tear should be equal in all sectors).
It is often said that a logical mind that can do maths can also do Latin and this was certainly true in my case. However, at Windlesham this was extended to doing Greek – no doubt a consequence of having a Headmaster and his wife both being Oxford classics scholars. The “privilege” of being taught Greek involved some unorthodox lessons. I remember being tested on my irregular Greek verbs by Mrs. Charles in her bathroom at the same time as she was bathing her daughters.
I was fairly unimpressed when I realised I was being taught ancient not modern Greek so that at age 13 I had a modest proficiency in two dead languages. However, over the years I have come to forgive the school as knowledge of the Greek alphabet came in useful when formulating more complex mathematical formulae, and knowing the two-letter spelling of some of the letters is useful for Scrabble.
I am less forgiving of the school for leaving me with a life-long dislike of porridge. As a shy and timid 8 year old, I innocently shovelled a spoonful of tepid, grey sludge into my mouth on my first morning and had real trouble keeping it down. Even after five years with porridge five times a week in the winter terms and twice a week in the summer, I never developed any tolerance for it and I became quite adept at swallowing without tasting. Not eating up was not an option in those days.
The mathematical course that Windlesham launched me on at has served me well. At Winchester, I had the privilege of being taught alongside a number of very gifted budding mathematicians and by some very talented staff. Years later, when the shrouds of secrecy were lifted on Bletchley Park, I discovered that one them, John Manisty, had worked with Alan Turing et al on breaking the Enigma codes. He unlocked the mysteries of calculus for me which I then found I could apply to physics.
A degree in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge followed and then a posting as a geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey where my boss was Joe Farman who subsequently found world fame as the discoverer of the hole in the ozone layer. Taking measurements at a geophysical observatory in a cold environment was fun for a while but I was keen to get back to more maths. On my return to England I went back to Cambridge to do a PhD in radio wave propagation. Numerical computing was now mainstream and I spent a contented three years solving Maxwell’s equations using FORTRAN IV.
On completion of my PhD, I took a job with Lloyds Register of Shipping where I developed a Finite Element Analysis program for calculating the stresses in ship’s hulls. Understanding the underlying mathematical principles made it easy to switch from one application domain to another.
Being fed up with London commuting, I joined Racal (the company that launched Vodafone) where I spent nearly twenty years developing pattern recognition algorithms for various applications from radar target recognition to car number plate reading. Very much the early days of Artificial Intelligence but still with a strong mathematical foundation.
When younger and more nimble minds started to proliferate, I decided it was time to move on. I joined the project building the new Queen Elizabeth Class of aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy. Less hard core mathematics but plenty of logical thinking required for such a complex engineering project. It was very satisfying after fifteen years on the project to see these massive ships enter Portsmouth harbour recently.
Now on the verge of retirement, I can look back on my time at Windlesham with much gratitude for the confidence that Colonel Francis placed in me and I hope I have done him justice.
Mathematics will play an increasingly important part in our lives. When we have all finished doing porridge as a consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown, climate change will return to the top of the agenda. An even more important issue where mathematical models are also being used to persuade politicians to introduce policies that are not always popular.
Graham Stott (OWL 1963-1968)