Cambridge degrees then and now: Day in the life of a mathmo

How has Cambridge changed in 30 years?


It’s common knowledge that all mathmos do is stare at equations and play dungeons and dragons, right? Rumour has always had it that they never leave their rooms and are allergic to the sun. Do these stereotypes have any truth to them? And if they do, has the institution of “the Cambridge mathmo” changed at all over the existence of the course?

We interviewed current Mathmos at Girton and an alumnus to find out. Our alumnus, Neil Wadey, was a Maths undergraduate at Girton College from 1982-1985. He is now a Group Treasurer for a multinational company and lives in Kent, England.

Clara Jarvis, Jonah Gibbon and Dan Miller are all undergraduates set to graduate in 2022. Clara is from Manchester and is part of the University Cross Country Team. Jonah Gibbon is from Devon and enjoys rowing for Girton Rowing Team. Dan is known for being one of the only non-cycling Girtonians. He is from Maidstone, Kent, and enjoys training in the gym.

We asked these people to tell us about their experiences of Cambridge, to trace the journey of matho-dom from then until now:

Jonah, Dan and Clara at a fresher’s week bop, and no, Jonah’s nose isn’t naturally orange (Image credit: Clara Jarvis)

The workload: Do mathmos even read? 

When walking down the corridor in the morning, you will likely see a half-dead mathmo coming back from a lecture, crumpled notes in hand, still trying to scribble down the last of the lecturer’s proof. Unfortunately, this heavy workload has not gotten better with time.  The set 2 to 3 lectures a day (including Saturdays!) has been a constant source of pain for over a quarter of a century.

While cycling is a must if you go to Girton, Neil had to cycle to colleges to hand in supo work. The idea of doing a maths example sheet makes me want to cry let alone having to cycle in the rain to hand it in! Neil said, “It was terrible and I was nearly always late, cycling at full speed down Huntingdon Road.” As if daily early morning cycles to lectures aren’t bad enough!

Neil not looking happy after a cycle to King’s (Image credits: Neil Wadey)

The not so vampiric faculty

Ahhh the maths faculty, known too many as the place where you try not to die as your bike hits the raised concrete on the footpath. I have always thought that it would have a nice vampire vibe going on with dusty books and strange mathematical models. However, since 1985, the maths department has had a serious revamp as well as moved locations. When asked about the maths library, Neil said: “If there was one, I never used it!”

However, Clara, Jonah and Dan couldn’t stop talking about the library and especially the comfy chairs. “The sofas are perfect for working in small groups on example sheets and for falling asleep on,” says Dan. The cafe was also mentioned as a common place for supervisions. Clara commented that “It’s so weird talking seriously about equations and then on the next table someone is having a coffee and talking about a breakup.” I have to say I’m surprised, I didn’t know mathmos dated!

Jonah showing his love for the maths faculty (Image Credits: Clara Jarvis)

Social lives? What social lives?

I know, I know it was news to me too. Maths students talk about and do things other than maths.  It seems that 30 years ago, at least in Girton, clubbing was much less of a thing. “House parties were very popular as people couldn’t afford to go out clubbing as much.” However, roughly where Cindies is now (RIP), there was a club that had bad music and a sticky floor – so I suppose not much has really changed!

There was also a cinema in Market Square where M&S is today. Neil enjoyed going to the 11 pm film showings after handing in an example sheet in town – “It made the cycle worth it!” He was very into music but unfortunately, the Corn Exchange was closed for renovations for all three of his undergraduate years. Luckily he used to play vinyl in his room with friends and helped with the college vinyl collection. Swap the record player for a speaker (or keep the record player if you’re ‘edgy’) and it could be 2021! Or at least if Covid-19 hadn’t killed the party.

Neil when he was not at a maths lecture (Image Credit: Neil Wadey)

Dodgy Textbooks

I think it’s saying a lot that the maths syllabus literally hasn’t changed since the 80s. One particularly memorable book that was part of mathmo life back in the day was called ‘Theory of Numbers.’ Neil told me, “There was this one lecturer who used to start his weekly lecture by saying, “I think you should all buy my book if  you want to pass your degree.” Then he would read a chapter and send us all home.” This book is now part of the Maths syllabus so I’m assuming if all you mathmos just sleep with it under your pillow you’re all leaving here with firsts! (Shout out to Jack Rich for going through all the reading lists to find this evidence!)

Very clearly a picture of an Engling pretending to comprehend maths (Image Credit: Harriet Wadey)

Calling all Mathmos!

So let’s get the goss! What are mathmos really like? Do they spend their nights dreaming of equations? The answer is no! Clara, Dan and Jonah only had nice things to say about the other Girton mathmos.  “A nice bunch,” said Jonah, and Dan added that “they are really nice, and mostly far more normal than I expected before arriving!” Looks like even mathmos are guilty of believing the stereotype. Neil, after 30 years, didn’t tell me any juicy mathmo gossip. The 1982 Girton mathmos were “similar to any Cambridge student although more into theatre and music than people would think.”

Despite the vast decline in flared jeans, the only shocking difference is the gender imbalance. While around 50 per cent of Girton’s 1982 maths cohort were female, in 2021, Clara is the only girl studying maths in her year at Girton. When I told Neil this, he was shocked and said “That is a shame. The university needs to do something.  This shouldn’t be happening in 2021.” I could not agree more.

Speaking to Clara she told me that “It’s hard being the only girl, but it’s a sad reality I’ve got very used to. I feel like I put myself under more pressure and feel like I have to prove my place. But then again I’m proud and hope that in the coming years, female mathematicians become more of a normality as it should be.” It is surprising to learn that in terms of female mathematicians we have digressed in the last 30 years.

Clara holding her own like the queen she is! (Image Credit: Clara Jarvis)

So there you have the good and bad and the ugly about studying Maths from Girton mathmos then and now. Looks like Cambridge hasn’t changed that much in 30 years! Who’s surprised? Anyone up for some D&D?

Feature Image Credits: Neil Wadey, Clara Jarvis

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