Wednesday 28 January 2015

In Code

A week ago, I was writing about 6 young scientists who had made a difference . . . by having an idea and implementing it in the real world.  I had heard about them because they had won prizes for the efforts.  Three of these prizes were top awards at the annual BTYS science for youth affair that happens in Dublin every January.  The fact that each of these prizes were for projects concerned with feeding, housing and healthing the dispossessed was probably not entirely coincidental.  I don't think it is outrageous if clever ideas that leverage social good are privileged at these events.  On the other hand, I don't think that science only has value if it has a bleeding heart.  In any case, thinking about prize winning young Irish scientists brought to mind Sarah Flannery who won in 1999 with ideas that were going to be more valuable to bankers and MegaCorp than to people living a tent in a refugee camp. She went to the same school in Blarney Co Cork as Richard O'Shea who won BTYS a few years later - hmmm, maybe teachers do make a difference?! I wrote this for the Home Education Newsletter about ten years ago.

Book Review: “In Code by Sarah Flannery with David Flannery”
This is the true story of 16 year old Sarah Flannery who won the 1999 RDS Young Scientist’s Competition for her new and original take on internet encryption.  It is an inspiration to all of us who seek to nurture the natural talents of the young. 

It is not altogether surprising that Sarah made her contribution to scientific progress in mathematics.  She comes from a math-able family and her father is a professional mathematician teaching in Cork Institute of Technology.  Some of her ability may have been in the genes, but her interest in maths was doubtless fostered by a father who was passionate about his work. He is also obviously passionate about education.  In one of the stranger episodes in the story, the Flannerys meet a millionaire who “…mentioned that all his children had been educated at home before going to university.  That was something I knew would impress Dad a lot – let’s just say Dad has very unorthodox views on education.”  One of the Flannerys’ unorthodoxies is that there is a blackboard in the kitchen – which is the sort of furniture you’d expect to find in the cliché home educating family.  And it seems that the blackboard is used by them all to explain things and to solve problems and puzzles.  A key formative event in Sarah’s education was enrolling in her father’s CIT evening class in recreational mathematics. This course is filled with the interesting aspects of maths; the anecdotes; the history; the triumphs and unexpected connections.  In other words, all the bits that are left out of the Leaving Cert curriculum because it is too full of the boring and the examinable. 

While this may seem ominously like the hot-housing of a gifted child, it doesn’t read like that.  Sarah has gotten serious about maths because her home was steeped in it.  It’s really no more surprising than the fact that so many catholics are raised in catholic homes.  What is engaging and compelling about the story is the strong feeling that her pursuit of excellence came from something near the core of her being.  She came across a problem in cryptography, and was engaged by it.  She read in ever widening circles around the subject in order to understand it more fully.  She had certain key creative insights that add enormously to the coherence and value of this branch of her chosen science.  She wrote it all up and cared enough about it to go the extra step of making the abstruse intelligible to other people.  The part of her “fifteen minutes of fame” that she most relished was when she was treated with the respect of an equal by professional mathematicians, some of whom, as competition judges, were obliged to give her and her work a good grilling.

And while maths is very important to her, don’t imagine that she is a one dimensional person.  She has other passions including that peculiar affinity many teenage girls have for shovelling horse dung.  Just a normal girl, who taught herself to program computers and read articles as thick with Greek as a brack is with currants.

It is obvious that some folks who go to school get a great “home education”: by which I mean that they are given, or make, the space to grow to their full potential. Who knows what Sarah Flannery’s full potential is, but she certainly achieved something remarkable before she voted in an election.
- x -
Update in Wikipedia: like Emer Jones, Sarah Flannery went off to Cambridge and is now a software engineer.

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