I remember some received wisdom when I was in sixth form that anyone wanting to study mathematics should not take a year out but go straight to university from finishing A levels. I definitely remember a theory that your ‘mathematical peak’ is at age 19 and while I can’t find any good evidence to support this now, a number of mathematicians certainly made their mark in their early 20s. Carl Friedrich Gauss had a great year when he was 19, showing skills with creating 17 sided shapes, making integers out of 3 triangular numbers and creating his prime number theorem. 19 is of course a prime number.
My recent birthday was also a prime number, and I have a somewhat random theory based on very little evidence that this is why the age is so unappealing to me. Somehow a very similar age which is multiply divisible just feels like a nicer number. A lot of women around my age have already had children or are definitely feeling the biological clock ticking. While this isn’t a major preoccupation for me at the moment I guess I am aware that by many people’s reckoning, my most attractive, most fertile, most energetic years are already behind me. I saw a Metro article on my birthday talking about unmarried women being ‘thrown on the scrapheap’ which didn’t exactly fill me with cheer. Reading beyond the headline now it is ostensibly about rights for unmarried women and men and draws on comments from a senior judge after recent changes to family courts. I usually advise my students not to read the Metro. Now I’m wondering if just seeing the headlines is worse. I was assuming it was talking about women being dumped when their partners take up with younger women. My impression is that this is common but I don’t really want to search the tabloids or even journal articles for confirmation.
I overheard a guy on the bus the other day going into great detail about how he wanted the next woman he’s ‘with’ to have a ‘six pack’. He was not in the least bothered about her other qualities but she needed to be fit, a regular at the gym. Other articles I’ve seen lately have talked about how older or larger than average women are much less successful at online dating. At the folk club I go to and amongst other staff at my work I am definitely one of the younger ones, and in fact a few colleagues commented as I was sharing birthday strawberries and chocolate crispies that they thought I was quite a few years younger than I am. And I was pleased.
Until I thought about their comments more and how they thought I’d come straight from university, through a direct Masters and PhD to be a lecturer. While that might make me younger than I am, it misses out the years I spent in valuable practice working with children, young people and families which I believe adds hugely to what I have to share as a lecturer. Do they think I have no idea what I’m talking about practically? Do they think I’m just a career academic? Perhaps I’m too easily offended or can find criticism in a well-meant compliment, but I think a mixture of academic and practice experience makes the best teachers in the same way as some life experience and experience of going through therapy is vital for counsellors and therapists.
Life experience can distract you from one focus I suppose, and I think this is another reason why some universities might not want 18 year old maths whizzes to take years out. There is momentum in studying maths and further maths at A level (as I did) which might lead you well into university study along similar lines. Taking a year out might convince you (as it did me) that there is more to life than studying maths and that there is a different career path you would prefer. Maybe the world of prime numbers missed out on my insights, but I hope the young people and families I have worked with and the students I encourage now have benefited instead.
We’re all getting older, and I know that some of my readers will be considerably older than me. I guess I hope there are many qualities that can increase as we get older – that we might gain wisdom and understanding, that we might learn from our mistakes and learn to be more tolerant and more forgiving of others. And if we believe in eternity then we’re all mere youths together with a much more satisfying future to look forward to and a prime that won’t tarnish or age or get flabby or fade.