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  • 31 October 2005
  • England expects... how maths did its duty at Trafalgar

    The Battle of Trafalgar is the unlikely inspiration of the latest mathematics masterclass for children to be held at the University of Sussex, on Saturday November 19.

    Teacher Peter Ransom, from the Mountbatten School, Hampshire, and Madeleine Shiers, a B.Ed student from the University of Winchester, will don 1805 seamen's dress to become Able Seaman Ransom of HMS Pickle and powder monkey Shiers of HMS Victory and take 30 schoolchildren on a mathematical voyage of discovery.

    Entitled Yo Ho Ho-ratio: some mathematics of Trafalgar, the lecture explores the mathematics used at sea, from the risks that Nelson took to secure his famous naval victory 200 years ago to the mathematics employed by sailors when firing cannonballs or rolling dice on deck. Plotting navigational maps, throwing skull-and-crossbones dice and even trying (weevil-free) ship's biscuits are all part of the fun.

    The aim is to show to young people how mathematics has always had an important part to play in life, whether it's winning historic battles, taking that decisive penalty or a hundred practical applications in between.

    Peter, whose costume includes an HMS Pickle hat (HMS Pickle was the ship brought news of Nelson's victory back to England) and lovingly-grown pigtail, says: "We look at the mathematics of cannonballs and demonstrate their destructive power, while sailors' dice promise probability. We have a number of historic items to help illustrate our points, including 200-year-old cannonballs that have been fished out of the Solent and sold on eBay."

    Meanwhile, Dr John Haigh, of the University's mathematics department and co-author of How to Take a Penalty: The Hidden Mathematics of Sport (Robson, 2005) will be showing 30 other schoolchildren how maths can help you find the best tactics in games of chance. Dr Haigh is also giving the Royal Statistical Society's Schools Lecture this year. He says: "I do enjoy trying to show young people how fascinating and useful mathematics is. I've always hoped that using sport will re-awaken interest in mathematics in, say, 14-year-old boys."

    The Royal Institution Maths Masterclasses at the University of Sussex run for eight weeks on Saturday mornings during the autumn term and are organised and staffed by volunteers from the Sussex branch of The Mathematical Association. Different speakers lecture on a different subject each week to 60 12-to-13-year-olds from Sussex schools.

    Professor Charles Goldie, of the Department of Mathematics at Sussex, says: "Peter certainly looks and sounds the part of a Trafalgar sailor and the children love it. The maths masterclasses are inspiring, so it's not surprising to find that young people who are bored with shopping are giving up their Saturday mornings to exercise their brains and have some fun instead."



    Notes for editors 

    For more information about the maths masterclasses, please visit The Mathematical Association's Sussex branch web site at:

    For information about the Royal Institution see:

    University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing, tel: 01273 678 888 or email or


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