23 into 8: a problem in mathematics

Of course 23 is a prime number, and 8 is not, but 23 into 8 sounds like it would not be a proper thing to try in any circumstances. Still, anything for a challenge.

23 June was Alan Turing’s birthday and the launch date of the new £50 note, and it was supposed to be the day on which the Knutsford Courthouse hosted an event to celebrate Alan Turing and his legacy in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Knutsford Courthouse is the place where Alan Turing was tried in 1952 for gross indecency and escaped a prison sentence through some crafty legal sleight-of-hand. But, 69 years on, 23 proved to be a prime number for Covid purposes, so the event was moved to 8 September, and this time the sun shone, and there was even a glass of prosecco.

Speakers on the steps of Knutsford Courthouse
From left to right: Anjali Mazumder, Natasha Ellison, Dermot Turing, Zamila Bunglawala and Mark Fletcher.

Speakers from the Department for Education (Zamila Bunglawala), Alan Turing Institute (Anjali Mazumder), Manchester Pride (Mark Fletcher) and the University of Sheffield (Natasha Ellison) spoke about different aspects of Alan Turing’s legacy. There were video contributions from Sarah John of the Bank of England and Kayisha Payne, who wrote the foreword to my book Reflections of Alan Turing. There was a reception showcasing various things connected to Alan Turing’s work and to the theme of STEM in education – the topic which united the presenters.

And there were some numbers:

  • 89% of STEM businesses are struggling to recruit, owing to a shortage of skilled candidates.
  • The UK needs 10 times the number of Ph.D. students in Data Science.
  • STEM roles are expected to double over the next ten years.

But:

  • In 2020, the proportion of candidates for GCSE computer science who were girls was 21.4%.
  • At A-level, girls make up only 17% of the candidates in IT subjects.
  • In mathematics, things are slightly better, but not great: 37% of A-level students are female, even though girls out-perform boys on average.
  • Only 6.2% of students studying STEM subjects at UK universities are black (the general adult population figure is 12%). This overall figure masks even more severe under-representation in some sub-groups.

There is a mismatch between the two sets of numbers. Yet, if we go back to Alan Turing’s days in Manchester, two of his three research students were women, and he is on the £50 note as a banner-bearer for diversity. We seem to have gone backwards since 1952; Alan Turing’s life was one long story of enthusiasm for science and maths, and his legacy should be to inspire and foster that enthusiasm in others, wherever talent can be found.  Alan Turing’s legacy can be about so much more than sepia-tinted nostalgia and victimhood. At Knutsford Courthouse, this time, in 2021, the agenda was to put him back to work.

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