Australian Innovation

Fostering Innovation Through Diversity

In this International Year of Biodiversity it is appropriate that we consider the importance of diversity within scientific exploration and innovation.  For just as diversity in nature is essential to achieve flexibility and resilience in the face of environmental unknown, so is diversity required to foster innovation that will assist humankind to thrive in a uncertain future.

To achieve diversity of scientific exploration and application, we must safeguard the right and ability of every child to think freely from an early age, and not be coerced by the common myth that science and mathematics in particular are purely matters of facts, figures, and “the right answer.”  Mathematics, the mother tongue of science, for example, expresses itself everywhere in the world around us: in the arts, music, linguistics, business, health and technology.  And those who excel in its practice and application are just as creative as they are logical.

The young and young at heart should therefore be encouraged to think outside of the textbook, and to place what they learn and what they discover into their own context.

What if we were to invite students to describe the number 16, its meaning, nature and uses?  What would they say?  Is there a right answer?

What if we were to ask students to examine buildings, trees or shells, first with an eye to which are the most pleasing, and then with the goal of expressing the root of this beauty both in words and in numerical relationships?  Not only would the students be more likely to discover something mathematical that they would remember, but they would link it to other important forms of human expression and thus to life itself.

Could it be that in this way we can foster the next generation of innovators, with the same creativity and diversity as those who saw the occurrence of Fibonacci numbers in nature, recognised the practicalities of Penrose geometric tiling, or heard how the mathematics of sound could be used to encrypt complex information?

The concept of pi itself --- the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle, without which architechture, not to mention modern science and engineering, would be lost, --- demonstrates that not everything mathematical can or needs to be expressed as a string of numbers after a decimal point.  It stands as a metaphor for why we should deconstruct the notion that mathematics is an esoteric, logical subject devoid of human meaning, but rather that it can enrich the lives and creativity of all thinkers and innovators, regardless of the sphere in which they operate.

Professor Penny Sackett, Chief Scientist of Australia

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