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Matt Parker is a stand up mathematician, and the Public Engagement in Mathematics Fellow at Queen Mary University.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I remember an old book of exercises that my dad gave me - in hindsight it was very tedious and old-fashioned, but I was about 6 and just learning to write and do sums. It really stuck in my mind because I enjoyed addition more than subtraction, so I used to turn subtraction into addition by adding an extra line. My dad would then mark it and give me the results. It’s probably telling that I remember the doing more than checking! My mum is also pretty nerdy: she has worked as librarian, and my dad is an accountant, who also trained to be a maths teacher. He did finish his training I think, but didn't do any actual teaching. This is as true now as it was in the seventies – you find out very quickly if you want to be a teacher on teacher training courses, and of course it’s not for everyone: it’s a tough job.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
I don’t know about education, but for UK teachers, teaching is constantly changing – oh my goodness. I only taught for four years – one in Australia and 3 in London. When I started teaching we were learning the 'new way' (of course not really new). I stopped teaching in 2009 and I think everything has turned over since then again – it seems as though everything changing has been normalised and is inevitable. As long as there exists a political engine that is setting the agenda from top level and there are political points to be gained or lost from the educational agenda, the system will always be in a state of flux. In terms of educational research, there is no easy solution to this but it is very difficult for research to be implemented in classrooms for a lot of complex reasons – so until there is unanimous agreement in the literature (!) it will keep happening.
Maths communication has changed a lot since I started – back then, there was no YouTube, just a few maths authors and speakers; but now with the growth of a whole area of nerdy entertainment which I love, recreational maths has changed dramatically. It's always been there – don’t get me wrong – but I think now there's the means for people to access it younger and feel more connected to others that love their thing. Previously the kids who would have been nerdy might have felt very isolated and now they can get online and be part of this massive community, which didn’t used to happen until they got to university.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
The structure of a cube appears in other bits of maths – unexpectedly. (See the cup on which Matt excitedly drew this for me – and which I have painstakingly taken care of since then – Ed.) If you draw a diagram of the different ways to remove three objects A, B and C you end up drawing a cube. If you draw around the edges of a cube going through each corner once you get a solution to the Towers of Hanoi. Finding unexpected connections like this leaves me speechless. For me, this is the joy of maths – the lovely connections!
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I would like to say no – but probably. One of the big issues in maths is we often only see the end results, not the guessing and backtracking and getting it wrong. For example, I recently made a video about Fibonacci: to prepare, I had a train ride that lasted about six hours, on top of which I had time while my wife was at a conference and I was keeping her company, and I had pages of attempts – all with various degrees of success, dead ends, mistakes – a complete mess. But the video, of course, doesn't look like that. (Deceptive.) I remember another video we did live – and we just couldn't get it. When I’m by myself, I try to be very kind to myself, but the fear of making a foolish mistake is ever-present with others, especially a really elementary error – it’s such a big fear. But I try to live what I think others should do, which is: go for it anyway!
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Definitely made. I think it is necessary – but not sufficient – to have lots of training and put in a great deal of hard work. Pretty much everyone's terrible at teaching to start with, and you’re never as good as you want to be – but you just keep going through the cycle of try, reflect, try again. Of course, if you don't want to be there, the kids will see right through that. Maths is a subject where anyone can teach it competently – even if you don't like maths – but you may teach it in a more algorithmic fashion. There are lots of very well-meaning teachers from other subjects who move across, which is useful but might not instil the same excitement in the pupils. The big problem is if you have a maths degree you can make much more money somewhere else.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
I would say discovering something new to them. That's important. People get hung up on discovering new maths – but most maths has now been found, generally. But the joy of discovering something new to you is indistinguishable from finding something completely new and people should take more delight in it – don't always just look it up!
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
My career has taught me that there is big difference between maths jokes and comedy that involves maths. One is much more niche, and the other is something that almost anyone can enjoy.
I like this simple one with two possible punchlines: