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Simon is the author of bestselling books such as Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets. He has also worked as a producer and director with the BBC. He has been involved with the scepticism movement and more recently has been working on several education projects, such as the Enigma Project, the Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme and the Top-Top Set Project.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
My family ran a shop, and I used to count coins and help with stock checks. When decimalisation happened in the UK, I realised that I was doing the conversions faster than the customers. I enjoyed thinking that I was smarter with numbers than some of the grown-ups.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
There is so much more mathematics in pop culture now than there used to be – for example, plays like Proof, films like Hidden Figures – but in some senses that doesn’t really matter compared to what actually happens in the classroom. Politicians who say that maths is flourishing in this country are totally missing the point, because the popular maths and science that lies on the surface is mostly just decoration and a happy distraction; it’s an excuse for policy makers to do less and less. Our maths curriculum, in my opinion, is serving the top students less well than it ever has and I would even go so far as to say we are lying to these students about what being good at mathematics really means. It’s something I’m getting involved in at the moment because it’s really important to me. I have a pilot project with four schools, who now have a top-top set in Year 7, and the plan is for this group of students to be seriously stretched for the next five years. The project was covered in the TES (with way too much emphasis on prodigies), and hopefully we'll have some interesting results over the next year or two.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I was working on Tomorrow’s World for the BBC and we were doing a section on explaining convection. I asked, “What if we could build a narrow tank of water that fitted like a slide into the back of the projector, which we could heat so that it contained a convection current which could be projected onto the wall behind the presenter?” So we built it, and switched it on – only to realise that the projector inverts everything, so the heat was actually going in the opposite direction. The hot water current was falling, not rising. It was completely unexpected, but entirely predictable!
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I’m not sure. I don’t practice it in company routinely...
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Largely made. I give a great deal of talks to audiences and in many ways that is like teaching, in the sense that you’re trying to put across ideas with clarity. I have no recordings of the first talks I gave, but I would love to have seen them, because I suspect that some of them were very ropey. So I did what I imagine most teachers do – just acknowledge there is work to be done and try to get better. If you can analyse your work objectively, you can only grow. It’s also important to get feedback from others – I often invite friends and colleagues whose opinion I respect and whom I trust to be honest to come along to watch me. I’ve worked with Richard Wiseman who has a background in magic, who emphasised the performance element of what I do and drew my attention to details such as music and the startling effect it can have on an audience.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
I’d consider myself a physicist first and foremost, but I do love teaching. It’s not what I do every day, but it’s been fantastic revisiting the foundations of maths with my older son who is old enough to do some simple maths, and seeing how maths can appear to be so weird to a young mind. It is great to see so many apps that are great for teaching maths and making it fun, such as Slice Fractions, Math Town and Sumaze.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
Q: What does the ‘B’ stand for in Benoit B. Mandelbrot?
A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot