[Skip to content]

Sign up for our daily newsletter
The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

The mathematics of love

Barnes Wallis is someone many people will know as the inventor of the bouncing bomb that destroyed three dams in the Ruhr area of Germany during the Second World War. This piece of engineering brilliance would later be immortalised in the 1954 film The Dam Busters. There is, however, another side to Wallis that is less well known: how he courted his wife Molly Bloxam. Their love blossomed as a consequence of letters they sent to each other throughout 1922-23; however, this was no ordinary courtship. Wallis used a method to woo his future wife that would make any actuary proud — he used the language of mathematics.

Wallis was an engineer by profession. A self-educated man, he learned the tools of his trade through a shipbuilder’s apprenticeship from the age of 16. He taught himself much of the theory needed for his career, learning the intricacies of calculus and trigonometry. By April 1922, when Wallis, then 35, first met Molly, 17, he was a specialist in airship design. However, he found himself redundant following the economically difficult times after the First World War. During this period he studied for his degree, later finding work as a school teacher in Switzerland, teaching mathematics and physics, two topics close to his heart.

Wallis was a shy man and had never been in love until he encountered Molly. They met through his father’s remarriage following the death of his mother. Wallis took a shine to Molly immediately. Her father, however, did not approve of their courtship. At the time, Molly was struggling with mathematics as part of her degree and it was through mathematics that Barnes was able to continue writing to her.

Through late 1922 and early 1923, Wallis and Molly exchanged many letters describing the details of their life. He found work again on a new airship venture, developing the skills he used so successfully in the Second World War. Through his correspondence, Wallis carefully explained the technicalities of calculus and trigonometry to Molly, teaching and challenging her with mathematical questions. These lessons helped form a strong bond between the two. Despite the strength of their feelings for each other, her father still disapproved. Over time he relented, and eventually the couple became engaged to be married.

The letters that passed back and forth between Wallis and Mary have been immortalised in Mathematics with Love, a book compiled by their daughter, Mary Stopes-Roe, published by Macmillan. It provides a real understanding of the lives of those living in 1920s Britain, an insight into Wallis and Mary’s budding romance and helpfully provides a good lesson in maths.

Mathematics is one of life’s fundamental languages and is an essential tool in many fields, helping to explain much that happens in the world. It is nice to see that it can also have a more human element, building love and not just bouncing bombs.

Recommendation of the month
Charlie Kaufman
If you haven’t heard of veteran film writer Charlie Kaufman, then you need to find out more. He is responsible for some of the quirkiest modern films including The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. For a good comparison, think Wes Anderson with a PhD in plot twists. His latest effort and directorial debut is Synecdoche, New York, a film starring Philip Seymour- Hoffman, which is well worth a view.

Client entertaining
Bistrotheque, London
The art of cabaret can be found in London’s East End at Bistrotheque. Tucked away in the back streets of Bethnal Green, this restaurant, bar and cabaret venue provides a whole evening of entertainment. Sip cocktails at the bar, followed by dinner in the modern English/French restaurant upstairs; then head down for the real reason to visit this very different venue — the cabaret. There are different acts each night, and you should be in for an eye-opening and very entertaining experience. www.bistrotheque.com

Art by an actuary
Michael Hall, an actuarial student at Alexander Forbes, is making his directorial debut at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a production of Kurt Weill’s musical One Touch of Venus. Playing at the Augustine’s venue from 10-23 August, support a fellow actuary for what should be an hilarious and deeply romantic production.