Breaking new ground!

Beth Barlow
Thursday 11 July 2019

I have come to the end of my Laidlaw research, and it occurs to me just how much I have enjoyed the programme, and gained so much more from it than I could have hoped.

When I started this project, I set myself the task of building and populating an open source graph database, something which is gaining popularity in the digital world, yet is not well understood by many. I intended to populate it with text records of everyday mathematical experiences from Britain 1750-1850, in the hope of building a picture of the changing attitudes towards mathematics, particularly with regard to the role of women in mathematical society. I hoped that parallels could be drawn between today’s culture and that of almost 300 years ago, and an insight could be provided into why so many girls are unwilling to pursue mathematics today and why the gender gap remains in this field. 

My research has accomplished everything I set out to achieve, and the database will soon be accessible through the website of the School of Mathematics and Statistics for any member of the public to query. I hope that it will be a valuable resource for both researchers and members of the public, and that it will continue to be populated.

Over the past five weeks, my research has taken me to several archives across the country, and one particularly memorable visit to Martyrs Kirk in St Andrews led to the discovery of a fragile diary written by a girl in around 1810, containing several pages of neatly handwritten maths. It was a fascinating to see the rigour and precision with which she laid out her working – every question began with the word ‘Required’, describing what she was aiming to solve, and finished with ‘Answer’. 

Extract from Anna Black’s diary, showing her mathematical working

What I didn’t expect from building the database was the fact that I was going to break new ground. Each record that I found was annotated with code to allow computers to recognise important details such as the names of people and bibliographic information. This information was structured under TEI guidelines, which specify how it is stored in the document. On top of this encoding, another layer is added – RDFa, which allows the information to be extracted and stored in the database. As far as I am aware, this is the first project of its kind that integrates RDFa encoding into a TEI framework?!

This project has been my first formal introduction to research, and I have enjoyed the flexibility in choosing in which direction I wanted to take it. I also particularly wanted to improve my ability to define and set targets, and form and revise long-term research plans, and these are skills which I have very much been able to put into practice.

It has been a privilege to meet so many researchers and experts in their field, in particular my supervisor, Dr. Isobel Falconer, but not to mention 24 brilliant scholars, many of whom I would never have met if it wasn’t for Laidlaw, and several of whom I am sure I will keep in touch with beyond university. I am very grateful to Lord Laidlaw, and to the Laidlaw team at St Andrews, for all their help and support. 

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