Should Rachel Riley be the most well-known mathematician in the country?
17th March 2017

By Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne

Well, let me start by answering my own question here: she’s not well-known for being a mathematician and I doubt if she would claim to be. Rachel Riley is a TV presenter with a degree in Maths from Cambridge. Between her telegenic looks and her training she’s eminently well-qualified to carry out the role she plays doing arithmetic on Countdown (and particularly its irreverent Friday night counterpart) just as her predecessor Carol Vorderman was before her for many years. It’s often very difficult arithmetic and an impressive skill, but that alone does not make either of them a mathematician. In 1992 Mattel produced a talking Barbie which said, ‘Math class is tough.’ This Teen Talk Barbie was hastily withdrawn from the market after a group of American women university professors protested that it perpetuated stereotypes about girls and maths. Rachel Riley does not find Maths tough but one could argue that the pressures of the media do mean that she has to make herself look like a Barbie!

I’m not writing this blog to be sniffy about Countdown hosts, though (if I was I’d start with the woeful Nick Hewer, who is surely living proof that being Sir Alan’s PR man and sidekick is a much less effective qualification for TV presenter-ship than a Cambridge Maths degree). No, what I actually wanted to focus on to mark National Science Week was where academics (whether they’re scientists, mathematicians, engineers, or anything else) stand in terms of national profile today.

Actually, I think there’s a good argument for saying that, in some respects, they’ve never been so well-represented. I’m sure we can all name quite a list of them who appear regularly on TV across a whole range of disciplines, from Mary Beard in Classics to Marcus du Sautoy in Maths, and many more – Helen Castor and Lucy Worsley on the historical side for instance.  At St Mary’s we all thoroughly enjoyed having osteoarchaeologist Professor Alice Roberts as our guest at school this week. It’s interesting how Marcus du Sautoy has even turned up on a show with the Irish stand-up comedian and panel show host Dara O’Briain (PhD) which has a distinctly challenging air to its ‘puzzles’ and which goes quite a long way to making Maths and related subjects ‘cool’. Significantly, both Alice Roberts and Marcus du Sautoy holds posts that relate to the ‘public understanding’ of their subjects – showing how academic institutions themselves are taking seriously the need to raise the awareness of their work.

Moving to the radio, we’re probably even better served and many of us are big fans of theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s The Life Scientific interviews and of the evergreen Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, which looks in some depth at a chosen academic topic (many of them scientific) each week. I was interested to hear recently that one of Melvyn Bragg’s requirements is that each of the guests should be a practising university teacher as that helps them get their messages across much more succinctly and meaningfully. The result of this is that, while there is some cross-over with their TV counterparts, the guests on In Our Time are eminent in their fields but offer us little distraction in terms of what they might look like when sitting around the table with Mr Bragg on a Thursday morning (it’s done live, you know…).

And that’s a significant point – and I think a difficult one for TV producers in particular to deal with. TV is a visual medium that thrives on looks. I refer you to the many long, lingering ‘establishing’ shots of the more photogenic academics/presenters wandering across equally photogenic soft-focus landscapes that plague so many otherwise interesting programmes. And if I’m tempted to see this as a feminist issue I actually think it works both ways, with the younger male academics affected by the pressure on image and appearance as well. I don’t think that tendency is going to change any time soon, though there is perhaps a strange kind of hope in the fact that the deeply misogynistic furore over Mary Beard’s early appearances seems to have receded.

What TV actually owes us (and this is the way to leave the debate on looks behind) is some really interesting, properly ‘academic’ content. We do not need The Gadget Show to be classified as a Science programme any more than Countdown should be seen as a Maths show. Of course, not everyone who watches academics on TV is a specialist but the answer for producers is not to dumb down – it’s to give the audience credit and raise them up in the same way that the guests on In Our Time and The Life Scientific are allowed to do.