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Des O’Brien is a corporate television producer/director who specialises in making programmes in the areas of science and medicine. He was a co-founder of Amethyst Television when the company was established back in 1990. Since then, he has been a director and producer of programmes about science, healthcare and medicine.
How would you characterise your current work?
I work with healthcare charities, hospital trusts and pharmaceutical companies making programmes on everything from the science of taste to comprehensive genomic profiling. I guess you could say that as an English and History graduate, I operate somewhat outside my comfort zone. However, I think that it’s my ability to make sometimes complex narratives into simpler stories that has enabled me to sustain a career in this area over so many years. Having said that, I shouldn’t underestimate the virtues of a curious mind and the human capacity for lifelong learning.
How do you feel about maths?
I would characterise my feeling about maths as ambiguous trending toward the apprehensive. I have to admit to having had fairly negative feelings about maths when I was at school. It was a subject I studied up until the age of 17 but would have “dropped” earlier had I had the chance. I think maths really left me behind at the point of abstraction. I was fine at the addition, subtraction and multiplication but lost my way around about the introduction of complex algebra. On reflection, I think maths is a difficult subject to teach to anyone who doesn’t get it first time. Remember, maths is likely to be taught by people who were good at maths. I think the consequence of this is that when faced with the nonplussed student, teachers can struggle to help them cross the maths Rubicon.
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
Much of the maths I use in work falls very firmly within my comfort zone. I can add, subtract and multiply without experiencing any cold sweats. So, basic accounting tasks like compiling quotes and sending out invoices is not a concern. To be honest, apart from this rudimentary maths, I think most of us can avoid exposure to more challenging maths until kids arrive. Fortunately for me, neither of my children studied maths beyond O level so I got by without exposing too much of my ignorance.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?
Up until fairly recently I had complete recall of my times tables. Now I confirm with a calculator. I still avoid the automation that you can build into software like Excel as it can be nice to know that you can still add up a column of figures. Actually, it’s my life outside work – in set building for amateur dramatics productions or constructing DIY shelving – that forces me to use maths in a much more intuitive and practical way and perhaps there’s a lesson there for teachers – applied maths, or perhaps applying maths, so to speak.
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
I’m sure it can be, but I’ve never been there. The nearest I’ve come (my tongue very firmly in my cheek here) is reciting the ditty;
11 was a racehorse
22 was 12
(One-one was a racehorse
Two-two was one too
One-one won one race
Two-two won one too)
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
To my earlier point about the basic maths skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (yes, I can do that too), I use these skills all the time and never even think about it. Without those basic skills I would definitely feel ill-prepared for modern life, especially as modern life becomes ever more complex.
How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
I assume you mean the school maths curriculum? To be honest, I’m not overly familiar with the modern maths curriculum so I may be out of date, but I feel that maths often falls into the trap of being taught as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. For example, I learned more about the joy of maths during a Radio 4 In Our Time programme than I ever did in school. The programme is about Carl Friedrich Gauss and I learned that arithmetic is full of patterns that you can intuitively grasp without the labour of “working out.” The story of how Gauss arrived at the answer to the sum of all the numbers between 1 and 100 is wonderful.
I would use the story of mathematical discovery to help inspire interest in pupils. I feel that maths can feel depersonalised. It’s as if the universe of maths just arrived from nowhere with no humans involved. It’s a bit like the story of the tree falling in the woods: if there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? To my mind, maths is similar; it needs humans to be fully appreciated. The curriculum should allow space to tell the stories of the mathematicians who have shaped the subject we learn at school.
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