How to talk maths in public

On the 8th and 9th June I was in Manchester taking part in the conference “How to talk maths in public“.  It was a fantastic two days, and great to match up the faces with all the names I’ve been following on Twitter.  In order that you may also look upon the delightful faces of Britain’s top maths communicators, I dutifully took photos and will present them to you in the course of this article.

The first two talks at the conference were given by people who need no introduction, since I have blogged about them before: Ian Stewart and Marcus du Sautoy.  Ian has worked in public engagement for over 20 years, writing over 70 books and working heavily with the media, especially radio.  For him, the aim in outreach is to raise awareness of mathematics as much as understanding.  It’s about making the public aware that mathematicians are doing something; that mathematics wasn’t all finished 100 years ago.  Nowadays most maths goes unappreciated, with computer science taking the credit for modern technological advances.  Marcus was only able to attend the conference via video link, since he was in Paris at a ceremony which was to give Grigory Perelman the prize for solving the Poincaré Conjecture.  (This conjecture was one of seven ‘Millennium Prizes” worth $1 million, set by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000.  It is the first to have been solved.  In the end, it turned out Marcus would have been better off in Manchester, since Perelman never turned up to collect his prize!) Marcus chatted a bit about what it’s like to work in television, having made quite a few shows himself (including The Story of Maths and Horizon), and about the difficulties of making a maths program that doesn’t ‘dumb down’ the content too much.  How much ‘proper’ maths should we be putting on national television?

Steve Humble

Steve Humble, aka Dr Maths

My first photo introduction is of Steve Humble, aka Dr Maths.  Steve publishes a regular column in the Evening Chronicle, a newspaper in the north-east of England.  People can write in asking him maths questions and he does his best to answer them!  His day-job is working for The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), which, as the name suggests, is an organisation to provide support, resources and inspiration to maths teachers.  Steve also organises “Maths in the Malls” – a maths trail that runs in a shopping centre in Gateshead, and has been so popular that it’s now a permanent fixture.

(Dr Maths is actually coming to our very own Edinburgh this weekend, to do a Royal Institution Masterclass!)

Rob Eastaway

Rob Eastaway

Next up is Rob Eastaway, who is a great populariser of mathematics.  He’s written lots of books (“Why do Buses come in Threes”, “Maths for Mums and Dads”), is a former puzzle-writer for New Scientist magazine and nowadays works on running Maths Inspiration.  Maths Inspiration consists of a series of fun and entertaining public lectures, which are as much entertaining theatre as they are entertaining maths.  It’s been responsible for inspiring thousands of students and teachers since it started back in 2006.

Peter Rowlett

Peter Rowlett

At the end of the first day’s lectures, it was time for the event which is the most important part of any conference: the dinner!  At a public engagement conference things were likely to be more lively than average, and indeed each table were given a series of questions that they had to answer and report back on.  Peter Rowlett was responsible for taking notes on our table, answering questions like “What’s the hardest sum you’ve ever done?” and “What do you think is the sexiest piece of maths?” (I still like ∫exy).  The best answers, however, came from the neighbouring table.  When asked “Why should we learn algebra?” they came up with and performed a whole song: “Algebra made the Radio Star” which pretty much earned them a standing ovation!

Matt Parker

Matt Parker

The fun was not yet over though.  Our after dinner speaker was Matt Parker, known to some as a stand-up mathematician.  Matt won the People’s Choice Award at the national FameLab competition in 2009, and has been wowing the world with his brand of maths comedy ever since.  Of course in Manchester he had a very sympathetic audience.  There are few situations in which someone can cut up a piece of paper, hold it up saying “it’s a square!” and have the audience whooping and clapping like crazy!  Matt’s going to be coming to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, in which he has a show called Your Days are Numbered about the maths of death.  Tickets went on sale today and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone to go along.  In fact, if you ever see Matt giving a show anywhere, go to it!  You won’t be disappointed.

Simon Singh

Simon Singh

No public engagement conference on maths would be complete without the most famous dude in the industry: Simon Singh. Simon made his name writing the best-selling book Fermat’s Last Theorem and making the accompanying Horizon documentary. Since then he’s written more books, made more tv shows, and done more radio programmes than you could shake a flock of sheep at. He came along to Manchester to show us some good and bad examples of maths communication in the media, and to be a mentor on our competition: The ex factor.

Hmm, “what is this crazy-sounding competition?”, I hear you ask.  It was loosely based on the traditional X-Factor format: people were split into different categories, with each team getting a mentor, and then they had to perform in front of a panel of judges.  The different categories we had were TV, Radio, Writing, Busking, and Live Show.  I (and Julia) ended up in the TV category – the one we were dreading most!  Our mentor was Toby Murcott, a freelance journalist and radio producer who worked for the BBC for 7 years, and our task was to produce a show where three panellists got grilled from questions by the studio audience.  The questions were pretty difficult, including “Why should taxpayers fund maths?” and “Why does the country need mathematicians?”.  In the morning I think Toby was despairing at our long and rambling answers, which we had to fit into only 4 minutes, but he somehow managed to prod us into shape in time for the recording.

When it came to time for the judging, I had no idea how the judges would ever choose a winner.  All the teams were really brilliant (some of the radio shows I thought were especially professional) and it was hard to compare across the different types of media.  So it was an extra-special shock when Julia’s team (which also comprised Hazel Kendrick and  Louise Walker) scooped the top prize! (And I can’t even claim any credit for the win, since I wasn’t allowed to be filmed…)

With that grand finale, it was time for the conference to get wrapped up and for us to head home.  But before I sign off, there’s one more mathematician I can’t leave out of this article.

Colin Wright

Colin Wright

Colin Wright is an industrial mathematician, working for a company that deals with a sort of air-traffic control for ships.  He’s given hundreds of maths talks up and down the country, of which the most popular is his one about juggling.  In the conference coffee breaks, he managed to keep a group of us spell-bound by teaching us how to tie our shoelaces and fold our t-shirts.  Simple things!  If you ever see this guy coming to give a talk in your area, I very much recommend that you should go!

And I’m afraid that’s it for today. Hope you liked hearing about this wonderful set of mathematicians, and I hope that you get to be inspired by them someday.  The future of maths public engagement is looking rosier than ever before!


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