Matt Parker is a London-based Australian 'stand up mathematician' based at Queen Mary University, London. He holds the title of London Mathematical Society Popular Lecturer, is one third of comedy group 'Festival of the Spoken Nerd', runs the Maths Gear website, is the best selling author of ‘Things To Make and Do in Fourth Dimension’, is a frequent host on Numberphile and regularly tours schools promoting mathematics.
The amazing thing about maths is you’re looking at underlying logic.
On becoming interested in mathematics
I first got interested in maths when I was quite young, before school in fact. My dad was an accountant and as a gift he gave me a book of arithmetic problems as if it was a treat. And, as far as I was concerned, it was. I spent a very long time filling it in and I remember that my first opinion about a mathematical problem was that I preferred addition to subtraction which was alright because I could go through, change all the minus signs to plus signs, and then when I got to school I was startled to discover that not everyone enjoyed maths. It wasn’t a treat for everyone but I’ve managed to keep it as something I enjoy ever since.
On my mathematical hero
My mathematical hero is difficult to pin down to one person. I’m very into Alan Turing at the moment. He did some phenomenal work and what I really like about him is he was both theoretical and applied and he did some amazing maths and he proved some things in pure maths that nobody else had been able to show before and then he also actually built some of these things and I had the joy of, I got to meet his last ever student who is now excessively old, and he told me how Alan Turing wrote, he didn't build the first computer they had in Manchester - he designed a separate one, but he wrote the first operating system for it and later people developed other operating systems that ran on the same computer but Turing would always flick it back to his original one because, the later ones, you could enter the numbers in base ten and get it to do your calculation naturally whereas Turing thought you should be fluent in binary and so to really understand how the computer worked you should do all your calculations in ones and zeros instead of letting the computer do that for you. He was just a phenomenal man who was fluent in maths.
On the joy of mathematics
It's often said that maths is all about patterns, which is both true but also not very insightful. The amazing thing about maths is you're looking at underlying logic and sometimes you've got to go down different amounts of distance to get to the underlying logic. So some things in numbers, so like, ah, ok, so all prime numbers, if you square them, the answer is one more than a multiple of twenty four. And you can show that very quickly. A little bit of algebra and you can show why that works, but then there are other things the primes do that we still don't fully understand and some things we kind of understand but it takes an awful lot more of, ah, well, getting more and more abstract and getting deeper and deeper into the logic but what's really nice is you do this for one thing and then you do it for some other thing separate in maths and you're looking at the underlying maths in both of them and suddenly they will meet and it turns out it's the same logic, it's the same patterns, that will govern or will describe such different pieces of maths and for me that's the amazing thing about maths. When the patterns from one area exactly match another.
I'm all for maths and science becoming more popular because, see, the thing is with maths and science is that there are some wonderful bits that anyone can grasp and enjoy. It's like music in that regard. There are some fantastic, I mean, I am completely amusical, but I can listen and enjoy some bits of music, but then other people get really into it and they know the theory and they can sight read and all these other things I can't even imagine and there's no way I could do that but I can enjoy listening to it and I think that's what's happening with maths and science. People are able to enjoy the music equivalent, but the people who ended up getting really into music, they started, I assume, from just listening and finding it interesting and then they get deeper and deeper and the same thing happens in maths and science. So as it's getting more and more popular, and easier to access beautiful bits attracting a bigger and bigger audience, some of those people will get drawn in and actually look at it deeper because, I mean, science, it's not just, 'Ah, a star', there's some amazing stuff in there and it takes a lot of work to do it and so I think it's nice that more people have the chance to put in that effort and really get into the deeper levels.
On maths' bad rap
Well, that's the great thing about maths, you can't attack it. Well, I guess you can, I mean, ah, when I meet people and I say I'm a maths teacher, because that's just the shortest way to describe it, and people go 'Oh, I used to hate my maths teacher in year nine. They smelt terrible.' And so there's that, and, I mean, people already attack maths because they think it's boring and they think it's useless. And, ah, to some extent they're correct because, and I hate to say it, but maths can be very boring very easily and it is useless in a certain sense in that you will never have to actually do, you will never have to solve a polynomial in your everyday life, you won't have to calculate it, you won't be attacked by a, a parabola's not going to attack you and you've got to work out its roots to stop it, alright, this is not a thing that will happen, but, ah, other people have used that maths to make technology possible. And so it's incredibly useful in general, as a civilisation, but individually people don't need to know it. And so I think the more people appreciate the maths behind the technology around them, even if they don't have to use it, on the whole they will see that there's a reason why we have all this maths.
On the importance of everyday mathematics
Now, maths has the advantage, and I guess as does science, but you know, it's kinda along for the ride, that, ah, we need the maths to make things possible. So everything from amazing bridges to smartphones to digital television requires very clever bits of maths and without that we wouldn't have modern technology. Now, most people don't need to know that but I what I think is important is the more you connect with it, on the one hand, I think there's a real beauty in understanding these incredibly clever bits of maths that make technology possible. So, the way we encode images for digital television. They're encoded effectively as a giant spreadsheet with different values representing different intensities and then we do some funky bits of maths to have error correction and so if you're watching digital television now, even if your signal is coming and going, your image will stay nice and crisp because it's not losing enough information that it can't use the maths to recreate all the missing pixels and occasionally you lose a bit too much and suddenly the whole thing goes a bit all over the shop, whereas old analogue television there was a continuum where if the signal came and went the picture would come and go and the maths behind how we, how digital TV works, it's just incredible. But while knowing that is beautiful you don't need to. But what's very important is that someone had to do the maths. And so to have future technologies we need more people who are learning maths or developing new maths or finding new uses for old bits of maths and without that we won't have new gadgets in the future. And when I'm old and retired, I mean, I still want new things to play with, I want the, the ah, the iPhone n+1 or whatever it is, so I want as many people as possible to appreciate the maths around them and to be inspired to learn more maths and hopefully some of them will invent cool gadgets. And, yes, they'll make a lot of money but that's beside the point. The point is I will have cool things to play with while I'm retired.