Last Wednesday I was fortunate enough to be in the audience when Chris Bishop gave the Tam Dalyell Christmas lecture and accepted this year’s prize for science communication. Chris works in the Informatics department at Edinburgh and is also employed by Microsoft to do research on Machine Learning. I loved the lecture not so much because I learnt new things about computers (although I was intrigued by the idea of using DNA as a computer) but mostly because I came away with so many ideas about maths outreach.
I’ve often complained that mathematics is the hardest of the science subjects to design outreach activities for. In Physics and Chemistry there are many cool experiments – you can blow things up, make things really hot/cold (liquid nitrogen is always fun!), play with strange materials or recreate the conditions on, say, Mars. Biology is directly relevant to all humans, no explanation required, whilst Technology and Computing are automatically cool because the future will depend so heavily on them. On the other hand it is very difficult to motivate mathematics for its own sake; to explain the beauty without having to resort to explaining how it is useful in other subjects. It is difficult to design physical experiments to illustrate things that we’ve only seen inside our heads, only manipulated using abstract symbols instead of hands.
Well, Chris Bishop has taught me that it is possible! I just need to have a little more imagination, a little more ambition, and possibly access to the equipment in a chemistry or physics lab… Here’s a clip of Chris explaining exponential growth using a sequence of mousetraps with ping-pong balls in them. One ball is dropped onto one mousetrap, causing both the old and the new balls to rebound. Each of those hits one other mousetrap, releasing four balls, etc. A very simple but effective visual experiment that explains more in 5 seconds than a graph might in half an hour. In another experiment, Chris gave the audience an idea of very small numbers by blowing up a snowman (it looked like cotton wool but was made of some kind of explosive) in a very short amount of time.
Another thing I learnt from the lecture is that if you have a really cool experiment, it is reasonably easy to find an excuse to fit it into your talk! At one point Chris had a balloon filled with oxygen and hydrogen which he enjoyed exploding with a loud bang, just to make the point that chemical reactions usually only go in one direction. Towards the end, he mixed liquid nitrogen with boiling water just to fill time whilst waiting for another experiment. Both of these are visually and audibly stunning – they wake the audience up and get them listening to you, ready for what you *actually* want to say afterwards.
I’m already looking forward to my next maths communication challenge to see if I can come up with exciting visual and physical props to make maths sound just as cool as Chris made computing. I’m sure it can be done!