Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers

Bobby Seagull's book is a treasure trove of wonder that all maths teachers can learn something from

Lucy Rycroft-Smith

The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers by Bobby Seagull

The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers

Author: Bobby Seagull

Details: Virgin Books, 288pp. £16.99

ISBN: 970753552797

Bobby Seagull’s book has a cartoon picture of Bobby himself on the front and the word “guru”, to boot.  The best way to describe my initial reaction to this is to imagine the face a small child makes when you hilariously give them a juicy delicious-looking piece of lemon to eat. I mean, even someone like me, who is utterly sold on how life-changing maths is, found this somewhat saccharine.  

Bobby’s “guru” face peeping out cheekily from the cover was enough to make me slightly queasy, to be honest. I had to put something over the eyes to stop them looking at me creepily, like the first time you eat a whole lobster.

Nevertheless, beneath the kitschiness of the cover message is a treasure trove of wonder. Bobby and I have much in common. He is a self-identified polymath, a lover of curiosities and trivia and cool fun facts (as if you didn’t get that from his appearance on that well-known lowbrow quiz show University Challenge). He spends much of the book considering how deeply maths connects to and supports other subjects such as music, sport and art – his love for those things is just as obvious as his love for mathematics.  It’s hard, in turn, not to love that about him. Wow, that escalated quickly.

As a seasoned maths teacher, there was much about this book that felt like it had been said before. But woven amongst it were some very current references, some more unusual juxtapositions, and some little original (if anything in school-level maths is original any more) puzzles for readers to play with. I learned quite a lot from this book, in fact. Seagull fans will also no doubt be overjoyed to hear that his maths classroom rap is published here in full. 

And that got me thinking: were the references to current music, nods to Harry Potter, Derren Brown’s mind-control and HIIT training – never mind the rap – a stroke of genius, or far too much the maths-book equivalent of Dad dancing? In other words, will young people enjoy and relate to these things, or turn away cringing?

My conclusion: it doesn’t matter. Maths is not a subject for the weak-hearted – not because it’s hard, but because it’s perceived as shameful. We live in a society where a passion for maths is seen as weird, geeky and embarrassing. Maths teachers occupy a particularly hallowed place in the halls of nerdery. If you’ve got that to work with already – and you’re named Bobby Seagull, and you have a platform – why the hell *wouldn’t* you go full-throttle with the cheese? Hell, I’d be Dad-dancing on top of a cheddar table, wearing a cheese-string bikini and waving pom-poms made of Camembert. I’d be the Lady Gaga of maths, wearing conceptual Red Leicester-dresses and talking on imaginary handfuls of mozzarella. Maybe he hasn’t even gone far enough…

Perhaps my only substantial criticism of the book is the title: not only is it a little syrupy for my taste, the use of “numbers” as a proxy for all of mathematics is lazy and very much at odd with the message of the rest of the book: that maths is so much richer than that. I absolve Seagull, however, and using my knowledge of the sector and excellent probability estimation skills, blame it on the most likely culprit: the editor.

Bobby Seagull, I salute you. All of us working in the arena of popularising and destigmatising maths know it can be a tough sell, and I admire your commitment to the cause, and your surprisingly thoughtful approach to showing the relevance and interest of maths in a huge range of other areas. I also found much to love in the way you took opportunities to highlight other people in this field, such as Dr Eugenia Cheng, and use non-gender-stereotyped language like “the stats men and women”. I notice and care about these things, and know that that’s one important reason why we should update the classic popular maths books of the world, even if much of the mathematical content stays the same. 

I also salute your commitment to the cause of teaching, because you are still “walking the walk” out there in the classroom with very real students, despite your own TV show and being a YouTube sensation. There’s real power in that.

Do I sound like I’m beginning to care less about the “guru” status? Am I, in fact, one of the 73 women Seagull suggests might be a suitable soulmate for him, based on a series of calculations in the book? Unlikely. Not because I don’t fit the criteria – I’m the right age, I live just down the road, I have a university education, I’m not “too” tall (although that’s relative). He likes women, I’m quite female-looking and bisexual. So far so good. The last hurdle might scupper me though – we have to “get on”.  And despite sharing weirdly many of the same interests – maths, obviously, but also Escher and Quentin Blake and opera and running and enjoying flitting between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” –  his callous dismissing of the incredible Oasis song She’s Electric as “filler” will mean, sadly, that will never be a reality. Call in number 71, please.

Lucy Rycroft Smith is a teacher and freelance writer, and the co-editor (with JL Dutaut) of Flip the System UK: a teachers’ manifesto. She tweets @honeypisquared

 

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Lucy Rycroft-Smith

Lucy Rycroft-Smith works in Communications and Research for Cambridge Mathematics (www.cambridgemaths.org), which has supported ACME in developing professional development advice for headteachers and senior leaders.

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