You’re worried about dropping ten marks?

If you’re sitting A levels in England, you probably are worried when you add up all the slips and fumbles you know you’ve made, and reckon you’ve lost ten marks.

It’s cold comfort. But most maths exams aren’t like that.

The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos never publishes detailed marks, but it is known that in one year in the 1860s the total possible marks were 17,000.

The best student got 7634, i.e. he dropped about 10,000 marks. The second best got 4123. All those getting about 1500 (i.e. dropping about 15,500 marks) were awarded first-class degrees.

The same source told me about what happened in 1880. Women had not been allowed to sit the exam. Charlotte Angas Scott got permission to sit it, and got the eighth highest mark. She was not allowed to get a degree, so she wasn’t counted in the ranking, and a male student was formally ranked eighth highest. Students protested.

“The man read out the names and when he came to ‘eighth’, before he could say the name, all the undergraduates called out ‘Scott of Girton’, and cheered tremendously, shouting her name over and over again with tremendous cheers and waving of hats”.

Scott was allowed to become a lecturer at Cambridge. She did postgraduate research there with Britain’s most eminent mathematician, Arthur Cayley, who personally supported equality for women; but could get a degree recognising that research, done in Cambridge, only from the University of London.

She moved to the USA and become a professor of mathematics there. One of her results was, appropriately, a proof of the “fundamental theorem” of Max Noether, father of Emmy Noether. Emmy would be the foremost woman mathematician of the 20th century, and, forced out of Germany by the Nazis, would move to work at the same college that Scott had worked at.

Cambridge continued to refuse to give women degrees until 1948.