For many of us, hearing the word maths brings back dark memories of gruelling homework and indecipherable equations. However, you’re not alone in such feelings of dread – physicists are not the super human mathematical geniuses we first thought, as they too might also be avoiding the subject like the rest of us.
New research from the University of Exeter, published in New Journal of Physics, has found that physicists pay less attention to theories that appear to be crammed with mathematical detail. By comparing citations from 2,000 articles, the researchers discovered that papers are less likely to be referenced by other physicists if they have lots of mathematical equations on each page.
It’s not the first time that scientists have been found to steer clear of difficult sums – joint leader of the study Dr Andrew Higginson previously discovered this fear of mathematics is shown in biologists, but was surprised to see the same trend existed in physicists.
“This is an important issue because it shows there could be a disconnection between mathematical theory and experimental work,” says Higginson. “This presents a potentially enormous barrier to all kinds of scientific progress.”
But don’t worry, those boffins we trust to help develop sustainable energy and find gravitational waves aren’t showing signs of lowering IQ, but mainly they are just put off by equations.
The study suggests that improvement in maths doesn’t actually need to come from teaching, as physics students already receive extensive maths training, but instead there is a need for clearer communication of complicated and technical equations.
“Ideally, the impact of scientific work should be determined by its scientific value, rather than by the presentational style,” Higginson concludes. “Unfortunately, it seems valuable papers may be ignored if they are not made accessible.”
Maybe maths anxiety is embedded in us more than we first thought.
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