Monday 15 July 2013

Arthur Benjamin, the man, the maths, the magician. Part 2.

Last week I presented the first half of my interview with Arthur Benjamin, where we discussed his mathematical interests. This week we delve a little more deeply into his entertaining persona.

Is the term mathemagic not a contradiction? Magic implies that there is some trick, whereas maths should be a rigorous science. Moreover, maths should be about sharing ideas, whereas magic is about protecting the secret.
I want my audience to say “How did you do that?” and because it is not strictly magic I feel ok with divulging the mathematical secrets. If I’m presenting at a school you’ll get more excitement from hearing the magician part than the mathematics part. I hope it lives up to its promise that I’m doing maths that feels like magic.

Have you ever had to compromise your academia?
Had I gone to a different university that cared exclusively about research and not about teaching and outreach I think I could have published more. I’ve written about 70 papers, but most of them aren’t frontier breaking or paradigm shifting. I’ve just been lucky to be able to work on problems that I’ve found interesting.

If you had to give one up?
Fortunately, I’ve never had to, which is one of the great perks of being in academia, but [heavy sigh] I suppose I would stay with the academia. The entertainment shows I do are very similar each time. My act hasn't changed much in the last 30 years! I could develop new material, but it might feel repetitious. By doing it occasionally I can maintain my enthusiasm.

What does your family think about it?
They’re used to it [big grin].

What mathematical performers do you rate?
There are more people performing entertaining mathematics in the UK than in the US. I see people here like: Matt Parker, Colin Wright, James Grime, Rob Eastaway, Andrew Jeffrey, Sara Santos and Marcus du Sautoy, who are really out there on the streets. I don’t think the US has anything similar. There are many brilliant teachers in the US, but not so many go on the road with it.

There are people who have linked other ways of entertaining through maths such as: Tim Chartier; who does “Maths and Mime”, Colin Adams; who writes mathematical plays, Larry Lesser; who produces funny maths songs, Ed Burger, who gives funny and profound mathematical talks.

What is your favourite trick?
My favourite part of my show is when I square or multiply large numbers because that is such a personal process. It’s a trick that very few people in the world can perform.

Questions from twitter:
1) What math concept did he find most difficult to grasp?
I’ve always been more comfortable with maths that used numbers, rather than say geometry. I’m very much a discrete mathematician. I don’t think I knew that until I started graduate school. Mathematics has become much more categorised than it was 30-35 years ago and so it is easier to find what you’re interested in.

2) What math concept is typically the hardest to teach?
Any subject that I don’t know is harder to teach, but that is because I haven’t spent enough time thinking about how to teach them. I don’t know what examples will engage an audience.

What makes more sense: pi or tau? Decimal or duodeciamal system?
I’m a big tau lover. I agree with the statement that if we could go back in time and change the factor to tau we would have simplified our theorems and formulas. Obviously, it will be very hard to change people’s perceptions in order to use tau, but maybe in mathematics there is enough of a will to do such a thing. I’ve seen books now that proudly claim “tau certified”.
As for which system, we’re stuck with these ten fingers and although you can use them to count higher using to use base 60, I don’t think we could have used our minds to remember a 60x60 multiplication table.

Are you excited with the recent progress on twin primes (or any other progress in maths)?
Very excited. It is one of the most accessible and open problems still out there. It is right up there with Fermat’s last theorem. That’s not true with the Riemann hypothesis. It’s exactly like Goldbach’s conjecture, or the four colour theorem, everyone can understand the question and you can even play with the simple cases. I’m also delighted that the recent progress came from a relatively unknown mathematician. Yay for the underdog!
Although the interview is over the mathematics is still not done! Over the next three posts I will be presenting three combinatorial proofs from Art Benjamin on patterns in the Fibonacci sequence as well as how to understand continued fractions.

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