Adam Spencer was studying for his PhD in Pure Mathematics at the University of Sydney when he won a national stand-up comedy competition run by the youth and alternative radio network Triple J. Since then, Adam has had a successful comedy career as a TV and radio personality before calling it quits in 2013 to once again focus on maths. He is currently the ambassador of maths and science for his old university, has written two popular mathematics books, is part of the Sleek Geeks Science Team along with Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and has twice toured Australia with Professor Brian Cox.
I can first remember being really passionate about mathematics when I was really young.
On becoming interested in mathematics
I can first remember being really passionate about mathematics when I was really young. I actually mention in the book, the first number I fell in love with was four. I remember just looking at the number four and thinking, ‘Wow, you can break it into two bits and put it back together. You can’t do that with three, you can’t do it with five’, and I was actually realising that four is not a prime number. ‘And one doubles to two, doubles to four, eight, sixteen, thirty two…that’d go on forever, wouldn’t it?’ So I was working out that numbers must be infinite. And still today, if I’m in the car and, say, set the volume, and someone sets it on 37, you flick that down to 36. It’s got to be a multiple of four, doesn’t it?
On moving from maths to comedy
I was at university doing a PhD in pure math, but at uni I’d done a lot of debating, improv theatre and things like that. I won a national radio stand-up comedy competition, Raw Comedy, undiscovered comedians, it was the first year that they’d ever held it. The standard was terrible and so I won, for all of New South Wales and, ah, got to meet the people from the radio and they said why don’t you come and work with us. And I had this crucial realisation at that stage. In a room of randomly selected people, I’m a maths genius. A room of maths PhDs, I’m as dumb as a sack full of hammers. My ability is taking what really smart, interesting people have done and communicating it in a way that makes people excited by it and want to do more. I’m a sort of Pied Piper calling people - especially bright, young, you know, sort of teenage minds - to mathematics and to think about considering it as a form of study and a career much more than I’m a mathematician myself.
When I first started doing things like my radio shows, the first few times I crossed to the World Chess Championships the listeners were a little bit bemused, but I find in radio if the person who’s talking is genuine and passionate about it and explains why they are, even if the average listener’s just going to go, ‘The chess thing I just don’t get’, they love the fact that you love it and almost have the courage to put it out there. And at times it did require a little bit of courage but in the 15 years since I started on breakfast radio until now, it’s not an insult to call someone a geek any more. The whole digital revolution has happened.
People are starting to realise that mathematics actually underpins everything that makes the world so different to what it was twenty years ago. That it’s just…it’s just all mathematics. The digital revolution, portable devices, big data, the internet, it’s just all mathematics. So for two thousand years we were the ones getting the wedgies, getting our heads flushed, yeah, who’s laughing now jocks?
On getting kids to connect with maths
I’ve got two young girls, nine and six, and people ask, ‘How do you get maths into kids?’ How do you get kids really excited? Couple of quick tips. One: never answer a maths question for your kid. When they say, ‘Mum, what’s 8 + 5’, you say, ‘That’s an awesome question. Why don’t you hold up five fingers. How many do you want me to hold up and we’ll bust this’. Well done. Two: don’t live in a real world and then step into a maths world and then go back into real world. It’s everywhere. If we go out to get a bite to eat, my girls go up and ask the guy behind the counter, ‘How much is that going to cost?’ They’ll come back and say, ‘$37.20’. I take out two $20 notes and they’ll go, ‘OK, that’s $40, um, hmm, we’re going to get $2.80 change’.
The older one now can work out a 10% tip and work out what the bill should come to, just looking at the menu. It’s everywhere, you find it all the time and it’s just becomes natural.
And thirdly, especially for mums, this is crucial. Kids just think their mum is the best person in the world. The perfect person. The moment mum says, ‘Er, fractions, go ask your dad’, they’re subtly saying, especially to their daughters, ‘You can’t be as awesome as me and know stuff all about mathematics’. It’s really important that mums hang in. Even if mum does a little bit of, ‘That’s an awesome question. We’re a little bit busy, we’ll do it after dinner’, and then just runs off and looks it up online or something. Mums in particular have to stay active and engaged with numbers and their kids.
Kids are born at the age of zero. I guarantee you at that stage your child knows less maths than you. Learn it with them! Just hang in there. You only have to be one week ahead, even half a step ahead. If you can do it for long enough, if your child gets to about twelve or thirteen and then starts to realise, ‘Actually, I think I know a bit more maths than mum and dad’, they feel great about that. That’s actually a status thing after a point in time. If your child starts to suspect that when they’re four, that’s not good.
On favourite concepts of mathematics
Numbers, when we count them, one, two, three, four, five, go on forever, they’re infinite. And the set of all numbers, when you allow decimals like ?, which goes on forever, that’s called the irrational numbers, they’re also infinite. But the infinite of irrational numbers is a bigger infinity than the infinity of counting numbers. The idea that some infinities can be bigger than others I find really beautiful.
The other thing that I find gorgeous, and I spoke about this in my TED talk in the US last year, 6 is not a prime number because it’s 2 x 3, 7 is prime because it’s 1 x 7 and you can’t break it down into any smaller factors. We know the primes go on forever but we’ve always thought, ‘What’s the largest prime number we know at any stage?’ Well, as we speak [October 2014] the largest prime number we know is almost 17.5 million digits long. If you typed it out, like this, I happen to have a book here, typed it out like this book here, the longest prime number would run [holds hands about 3 feet apart] that length, just all of text. And we know that’s prime as confidently as we know the number 7 is prime. I find that mind-blowing.
On new discoveries in mathematics
There’s been some great discoveries in mathematics recently. The Fields Medal is like the mathematics version of the Nobel Prize. It goes for great mathematical work, the person has to be under the age of 40. An Iranian woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, recently won the Fields Medal. First ever woman to win the Fields Medal. Word up. Great stuff.
And another thing in the area of prime numbers, when two prime numbers sit next to each other as odd numbers, like 3 and 5, or 5 and 7, or 11 and 13, we call them twin primes. We don’t know if there’s an infinite number of twin primes and it’s proved a really hard problem. Last year this guy called Yitang Zhang who, no disrespect to him, no one had heard of in the mathematical world - he’d even worked in a sandwich store for a while to make ends meet, was a lecturer in mathematics not at the most prestigious of universities - comes along and, bang, drops this theorem that doesn’t prove entirely that there’s an infinite number of twin primes but makes a massive step forward. And it was just gorgeous. Everyone’s just gone, ‘Who’s this? Who’s this guy?’ Bang. Beautiful moment. Well done Yitang Zhang.
On research mathematics for research’s sake
Oh, in mathematics it’s possibly the most important field to have just pure research. There was a set of equations a group of people solved a long time ago by inventing these weird numbers where minus one could have a square root, it’s called imaginary numbers, and it solved all these really cute equations. 200 years later, when we’re trying to get aircraft off the ground and work out the equations of air going over the wing, complex_numbers come in and save the day.
Mathematicians working in pure mathematics that might seem to have no immediate industrial application are laying down the building blocks for future developments. The great Australian John O’Sullivan and his team at the CSIRO were working on pure mathematics to try and extract data out of Hawking_radiation coming out of black_holes. They never managed to track down one of the black holes, never got to apply it there. Years later, when we wanted to get computers to talk to each other wirelessly, it was these same Fast_Fourier_transforms that were needed to take out all the noise of two computers talking to each other, things bouncing off walls and all that sort of stuff, to get the signal. WiFi was invented; the mathematics that underpins WiFi was invented for a completely different reason years earlier but then found its home in what has revolutionised the way people communicate in the 21st century.