Famous Mathematicians

Task 135 ... Years 4 - 10


Using the popular context of a word find puzzle students become familiar with the names and life span of 18 historic mathematicians. They discover that some are male and some are female and that there have been famous mathematicians in many centuries. From here students are encouraged to research more deeply into the life of one from the list. The bigger challenge is to find names and details of three mathematicians alive today.


  • Board, marking pen and cloth
  • List of names of mathematicians


  • history of mathematics
  • data representation and analysis

Famous Mathematicians


A task is the tip of a learning iceberg. There is always more to a task than is recorded on the card.

We would not expect students to become authors without knowing something of the life and work of famous writers. Similarly if students are learning to work like a mathematician, then it is especially appropriate to come into contact with the lives and work of professionals in the field. This task starts that process.

The solution to the word find is:

Answers to the remainder of the card depend on individual research results. The web offers plenty of information in response to any of the names on the list. A significant site for information about women mathematicians is: http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/women.htm

One way of extending the task is to challenge students to calculate the age of each listed mathematician.

  • Which mathematician lived for the shortest time?
  • Which mathematician lived for the longest time?
  • Make a graph showing the names and ages of these mathematicians in order.
  • Using the data as a guide, is it possible to decide whether male or female mathematicians live longer?

Whole Class Investigation

Tasks are an invitation for two students to work like a mathematician. Tasks can also be modified to become whole class investigations which model how a mathematician works.

The word puzzle can easily become a class activity by first recreating the word find board using the table making tool of a word processor. Include the names on the same page. Print a copy for each pair of students and ask them to try the puzzle. Display the same word finder on the Interactive White Board. As names are found students 'cross them out' on the whiteboard. There are 18 names to find so try to give each pair a chance to cross off at least one on the board.

Use the exercise to begin a discussion of current knowledge of these people - emphasise people - and to encourage thought about what their lives may have been like.

  • How do you think the life of Euclid might have been the same as, or different from, the life of Fermat?
Assign one of the name to each pair and suggest that each pair is now expected to find out information about the life of their mathematician. As a class develop a list of research questions that everyone could use. Try to raise the intellectual level of a few questions above that of just collecting facts; perhaps by including questions such as:
  • In what ways do you think your mathematician's life was successful?
  • In what ways do you think your mathematician's life could have been better?
  • In what ways do you think your mathematician's life made the world a better place for others?
  • Is there any part of your mathematician's life that you think they would change if they could? Explain.
At least one teacher has continued the use of mathematician's names as a group name for a pair of students doing other investigations. See Becky & Lydia's report in the PowerPoint at Settlebeck High School section of the Recording & Publishing section in Mathematics Task Centre.

Teachers could also include this investigation in a regular Mathematician's Friday, an idea illustrated by the work of Catherine La Franchi and staff of St. Vincent de Paul Primary School.

Maths300 Lesson 124, Famous Mathematicians uses the faces and names of six famous mathematicians as collectable cards distributed as a promotional give away in Pythagoras Popcorn. In this context, the investigation shifts to the time it is likely to take to collect a complete set. An additional underlying purpose of this lesson is to explore how a mathematician applies the strategy of make a model to a real-life situation. The lesson includes information that can readily be turned into posters of each mathematician. Of course, the information from the students research as described above could also be the source of the posters and cards that stimulate this lesson.

Is it in Maths With Attitude?

Maths With Attitude is a set of hands-on learning kits available from Years 3-10 which structure the use of tasks and whole class investigations into a week by week planner.

The Famous Mathematicians task is an integral part of:

  • MWA Space & Logic Years 7 & 8

The Famous Mathematicians lesson is an integral part of:

  • MWA Chance & Measurement Years 9 & 10

Green Line
Follow this link to Task Centre Home page.