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Interview: Fay Rowland, mathematician, scientist, Trekkie

16 June 2023

‘There’s an intrinsic beauty to maths, a deep — a mirror of the ineffable beauty of God’

My dad said that happiness was finding something you loved doing — and then finding someone who’d pay you to do it. I’m lucky enough to have done just that. I’ve always wanted to be a maths teacher. I’ve always been a maths teacher. And I intend to be a maths teacher until I fall off my perch.

When I was about six, the teacher set a group of us playing a card game. We “snapped” when the cards added up to ten, and, as I knew six-plus-four, and the others didn’t, I won every game hands down. I remember thinking: “Hey, this number stuff is good.”

I studied maths and chemistry, with a side helping in the new field of computing. I’m so old that my first programs were written on punched cards. I particularly loved studying Boolean algebra in Maths — the “yes-no” of logic and decision-making — and applying that same algebra in the logic gates that form transistors and, ultimately, computers.

After that, I did research at Nottingham University, making mathematical models of how sound propagates. I worked with engineers who would plonk a sheaf of papers covered in hieroglyphs on my desk and say: “You’re a mathematician. Where’s the mistake in this?”

There are two fields of study that deal with absolute truth: theology and maths, and I get to do both.

I once thought science could give the answer to every question. As I learned more, I found that, for every question answered, two more were generated; so the likelihood of everything being knowable shrank. Later, I recognised that the strength of the scientific method is that it never claims to know absolute truth, but “our current best model”. Scientists are sometimes derided for changing their minds, but that’s how we learn. Clinging stubbornly to opinions that are contradicted by facts isn’t faith, but foolishness.

So, what of truth? I love that the maths taught in the academies of Plato and Pythagoras is identical to the maths we teach in schools today. The square on the hypotenuse is still equal to the sum of the squares . . . — you know the rest. Maths is the only subject that hasn’t changed, and won’t change. Sure, the units of measurement are different, and Venn diagrams probably weren’t called Venn diagrams back then, but all the concepts and the truth that they express are the same yesterday, today, and for ever.

There’s an intrinsic beauty to maths: a deep, underlying coherence and integrity that is a mirror of the ineffable beauty of God. There is profound mystery in both: not mystery like a Miss Marple that one solves in half-an-hour, but a vast ocean of as-yet-unfound treasure that one may explore for ever.

Both atheism and belief in a loving, good, and personal God are logically consistent and non-self-refuting. Both are unprovable by scientific methods. Both are positions of faith. I used to have one, and now I have the other. I’m very happy with the change.

I grew up on a steady bland diet of Enid Blyton, but, when I was 11, my English teacher gave me Jane Eyre, and my head exploded. I worked my way through the English stockroom, and I’ve not stopped reading since.

I love sci-fi, but, to be honest, there’s very little science in most of it. It’s more about exploring people: taking a step back and watching as a conveniently human-shaped alien species does this or that dreadful thing. Then, when we throw up our hands and say, “How stupid of them to think that way,” we realise we’re doing a Romans 2.21.

I spent lockdown in the arms of Bill Bryson — sorry, Mrs Bryson — plus Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett. I’m a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz, as well as of John Polkinghorne, C. S. Lewis, and P. D. James. With my nerdy head on, it’s Matt Parker, Simon Singh, LOTR [The Lord of the Rings], of course; and I’m a massive Potterhead. I’m currently reading Marcus Chown, Eugene Peterson, Stephen Cottrell, and M. C. Beaton.

Labyrinths have long been a fascination. I don’t mean mazes, the puzzles that trap you: a labyrinth had only one path — no dead ends and no wrong turns. Labyrinths are relaxing and have a lot of beautiful maths embedded within. The main difficulty that many of us have with Bible meditation is allowing ourselves the time to simply do nothing in God’s presence. It feels lazy, it feels unproductive, and that, says society, is a grievous sin.

Walking a labyrinth gives one an excuse to be still while doing. Your feet are busy walking, or your hands are busy colouring; so your mind is allowed to be quiet and listen, see, wonder. I find drawing labyrinths equally calming, especially the leaf and stone ones.


Launde Abbey has a large grass labyrinth which I visit often. It’s a waymark in my walk with God. “How’s it going, lass? What’s happened since last you were here?”

Moths are no good at mazes. Most of us are moths. Moths see the moon and fly straight towards the light, bumping into the glass over and over, ignoring the open pane just above. Moths don’t understand the long way round. Bonhoeffer or Nouwen aren’t moths: they’ve understood that the roundabout route is the real way. I’m still very bad at this, but at least I know I’m bad, which is progress of a sort. The point is the process, not the product.

I’m pleased to see labyrinths appearing in hospitals, schools, and other secular spaces. While they’ve long been used in Christian tradition, the benefits of labyrinth walking are applicable to everyone.

I was brought up in the Midlands: mum, dad, brother, and dog. My brother and I were sent to Sunday school, mainly to let my mum have a bath in peace. After ten weeks, we were given attendance prizes of Ladybird books and never went back.

Home life now is very different. I have three daughters, but I’m a recent empty-nester. I now live happily with my pet dragon, called Dwagony, and, much as I love my girls, I guiltily confess that I’m really enjoying my freedom after 20-plus years of being Mum. One gets a shorter sentence for murder.

I wonder how often God called Moses before the message got through? Had God spoken in the stillness of the night, and had Moses rolled over and mumbled: “Mustn’t eat quail before bed”? Eventually, God pulled out the burning bush; now Moses listened. I suspect God spoke many times before I heard: 22 January 1982, about 9.15 p.m. I didn’t know what I was signing up for, but I knew it was the most important decision I would ever make.

I enjoy sewing and knitting, and I’m delighted to say that I recently used quadratic equations to work out how wide to make a diagonal lace scarf so that it would have the correct aspect ratio and exactly use up the ball of yarn. I knew quadratics would be handy for something, eventually.

Before I had children, I collected A levels — I have about eight — and I want to learn about so many more things — economics, law, psychology — polish my Greek, and do a lot more writing. I’m training as an LLM, and there’s a Ph.D. somewhere with my name on it. And I have a yarn stash that currently exceeds life expectancy. I’m writing a series of children’s books which feature a time-travelling Nan. So far, she has managed to fit four careers into her life, and she’s only 180.

Being angry doesn’t change anything. I’d rather donate food to a foodbank or send first-aid supplies to Ukraine.

I am the essential optimist. The glass isn’t half full: it’s full to the brim of quarks and leptons and all kinds of thrilling, undiscovered stuff. The future? Bring it on!

Ask any parent, and they’ll say: “I mostly pray for my children.”

I’d like to be locked in a church with James Clerk Maxwell. Or Gregor Mendel. Or Michael Faraday. Or Euler, Lemaître, Newton, Babbage, Pascal, or any of the great minds of maths and science who combined their love of God with their love of exploring his creation.

Fay Rowland was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

40 Days with Labyrinths: Spiritual reflections with labyrinths to “walk”, colour or decorate is published by DLT at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1-915412-10-2.

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