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A Point of View: Mary, queen of maths


In his Mathematician's Apology, published in 1940, the great mathematician GH Hardy argued emphatically that pure mathematics is never useful. Yet at the very moment he was insisting that - specifically - "real mathematics has no effect on war", a mathematical breakthrough was being made which contributed to the wartime defence of Britain against enemy air attack.

What is more, that breakthrough laid the groundwork - unrecognised at the time - for an entire new field of science.

In January 1938, with the threat of war hanging over Europe, the British Government's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research sent a memorand...