Figures of fun

21st February 2014 at 00:00
Think about your favourite comedian: the probability that they have a passion for numbers is surprisingly high. A new breed of entertainer is banishing the nerdy image of maths, using laughter to capture imaginations, and teachers should follow their lead, writes Helen Ward

Let's start with some numbers. Irish comedian Dara O'Briain's television programme, School of Hard Sums, has pulled in more than 400,000 viewers a week. Last year, 22,750 people bought tickets to see the comedy show Festival of the Spoken Nerd, and 12,000 students are already booked to attend the teen-focused Maths Inspiration shows around England this year. Interesting, but possibly not statistically significant. (Did you hear about the statistician who tried to cross a river that had an average depth of 60cm? He drowned.)

Figures such as these don't prove anything in particular, but it is clear that interest is growing in the space where humour and mathematical talent might intersect in a Venn diagram. And if there is a relationship between comedy and maths, how can teachers use it in the classroom?

For a generation, cartoon The Simpsons has been statistically significant in terms of viewing figures. It is one of the most successful television shows in history, with millions of viewers and dozens of accolades. What is less well known is that some of the creative geniuses behind it are exceptionally good at maths. Simon Singh, one of the UK's most celebrated science writers, interviewed some of the show's scriptwriters for his 2013 book The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets. They included David S Cohen (now known as David X Cohen), who has a degree in physics from Harvard University and a master's in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, and Al Jean, who is also a Harvard maths graduate.

So, does Singh think maths is the new funny?

"No," he says on the phone from a hotel room in India, where he is promoting his book. "I don't think maths is the new funny."

Disappointing. But this denial comes from a man who has included at least 42 maths jokes in his book, although they do include, "What's purple and commutes? An abelian grape", a pun about group theory that may have a rather limited audience.

"It's not about maths being funny," Singh continues. "It's about intelligent people having fun with something. There have always been plenty of people who love science, maths and all that nerdy, geeky stuff. What's changed is the internet. It means you can reach those people and get a venue packed with them."

And that is exciting.

One of Singh's favourite maths jokes is about the precise nature of a mathematician's thinking. "An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician were holidaying in Scotland. Glancing from a train window, they observed a black sheep in the middle of the field. 'How interesting,' observed the astronomer, 'all Scottish sheep are black.' To which the physicist responded, 'No, no! Some Scottish sheep are black.' The mathematician gazed heavenward and then intoned, 'In Scotland there exists at least one field, containing at least one sheep, at least one side of which is black.' "

On the other side of the world, I feel Singh may be gazing heavenward as he delivers the punchline.

'Comedians are geeks'

It's time to seek out the grass roots of the movement that is introducing an element of cool to the once geeky world of maths, so I head to the Palace Theatre in London.

Few of the teenagers waiting to see the Maths Inspiration show look nerdy or geeky. Among the 1,000 students from 30 schools huddling against the chilly, grey morning are boys dressed in jeans and nodding along to their iPods and girls wearing denim shorts over tights. A student runs up clutching a carrier bag containing his sandwiches, just in time to file into the theatre.

"Who is from an even-numbered year group?" asks host Timandra Harkness, striding on to the stage in a shift dress and boots. "Who is from an odd-numbered year?" The hubbub dies down; some students cheer.

"Sometimes," Harkness confesses to me later, "I ask them where they'd rather be: here having fun or back at school doing, duh, chemistry. And sometimes they say, 'Well, actually, I really like chemistry.' " She laughs heartily.

In the show, its three presenters - Rob Eastaway, Steve Mould and Ben Sparks - chat about aspects of game theory, fractals, geometry and probability, and it does feel like proper entertainment rather than a lesson that has popped up wearing a pair of oversized glasses and a fake nose in a vain attempt to be funny.

Jordan Dono, 15, of Crown Woods College in south-east London, is studying GCSE further maths. "I think (the show) is interesting; quite unique and fun. I'd not heard that stuff about game theory before," he says.

In the show, Eastaway uses game theory to explain the mathematical quirks of a truel - a three-way version of a duel - and illustrates his point with a clip from the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Clint Eastwood (a 100 per cent successful shot) is more likely to be killed than not as he faces both Lee Van Cleef (a 66 per cent success rate) and Eli Wallach (33 per cent). Assuming that everyone shoots at the person most likely to kill them, the odds are stacked against hot-shot Eastwood. Wallach has a 7 out of 9 chance of survival; Eastwood just 2 out of 9 (although in the film we discover that Eastwood unloaded his rivals' guns the night before, perhaps because of an instinctive grasp of higher-level maths).

Andrew Abbs, a teacher at Crown Woods College who is chaperoning 33 students aged 15-16, points out: "It's good for kids to get some perspective on what they can do with maths."

Eastaway, co-author of Maths for Mums and Dads and former president of the UK Mathematical Association, is the brains behind Maths Inspiration. "Every other subject has a field trip," he says. "Why not maths?"

He mentions that some teachers even feel there is not that much maths in the show. Anyone expecting to see quadratic equations being expanded out to the sound of Tchaikovsky will be disappointed.

But Matt Parker, maths fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, host of Maths Inspiration and co-creator of Festival of the Spoken Nerd, points out that most teachers see value in a break from the curriculum treadmill. "We want students to see that maths is bigger than the maths they learn in the classroom," he says. "Teachers love (the show) because it does all the things they can't do."

Parker has made a career out of being a "stand-up mathematician". So is there a link between maths and comedy? And can it be brought to the classroom? "If you're doing comedy, the important thing is to talk about things you enjoy," he says. "I enjoy maths."

Helen Arney, another comedian from Festival of the Spoken Nerd, thinks there is more to it. "A lot of comedians are geeks," she says. "For one thing, comedians tend towards relentless over-analysis of what they do. They are obsessed with how and why a particular thing makes people laugh - just like a scientist. They follow trains of thought through to the absurd. There is actually a type of mathematical proof called reductio ad absurdum. And they like repeatable results. If you are a comedian, you want laughs every time."

Arney also thinks that maths is not so niche. "People who come to see us at the live shows realise they're not nerds, but kind of want to be one."

Fun for everyone

This is an interesting and rarely analysed point. Many more people have a basic grasp of maths at the age of 16 than, say, geography. In fact, maths is probably the single most studied subject across the world, with many developed countries making it compulsory not just to 16 but to 18. So is it really a minority interest? Possibly more people understand jokes about the binary system than about sedimentary rocks. (What did the sedimentary rock tell his teacher during the test to become a metamorphic rock? This is too much pressure.)

Perhaps it is just a numbers game, then. If maths is the most commonly studied subject, numerically gifted people should be working everywhere, including in comedy. For example: Tom Lehrer, the celebrated 1960s American satirist, had a degree in maths from Harvard University and an academic career; Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr Bean, has a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Oxford; Dara O'Briain studied maths and theoretical physics at University College Dublin; comedian Eddie Izzard studied accountancy.

But perhaps it's not just about the numbers. Matt Selman, one of the writers on The Simpsons, told Singh his theory: "I think the mathematical mind lends itself best to writing very silly jokes, because logic is at the heart of mathematics. The more you think about logic, the more you have fun twisting it and morphing it. I think the logical mind finds great humour in illogic."

Even in Australia, which cultivates an image of itself as a nation of jocks, comedian Adam Spencer has just been made ambassador for maths and science at the University of Sydney. Spencer's previous job was a DJ on a radio breakfast show. "In a roomful of maths PhDs," he said in his 2013 TED talk, "I'm as dumb as a box of hammers. My skill is not in mathematics. It is in telling the story of mathematics."

Does Spencer, who gained a first-class honours degree in pure maths from the University of Sydney, think that cracking jokes about maths can encourage more teenagers to study the discipline?

"I doubt it," he says. "Most comedy seems to be about sex and drug-taking, and young people don't seem interested in that sort of stuff at all." Funny guy.

But others are convinced that being exposed to funny maths can spark more than a casual chuckle. Harkness, for example, is a film and drama graduate, and is convinced that she only came to maths through comedy.

"One day, I was at the Royal Society doing a bit of serious journalism," she says, "when I bumped into someone I knew from the comedy circuit, Helen Pilcher. Back then she had a day job as a stem cell scientist. We thought of doing a comedy show about science and we got a booking."

The demand for such light-hearted shows has grown since then. But Harkness would find herself watching science programmes and thinking that they just didn't give her the rigorous maths she craved: she is now studying for a maths degree with the Open University.

Not just for nerds

The idea of maths as something more than a weird, lonely pursuit is changing, but it is taking some time to do so. As recently as 2011, the Vorderman inquiry into maths education in England stated: "Too often, words like 'nerd', 'pointless' and 'boring' are associated with mathematics in the media; contrast this with a discussion about literature and you will not find these words used. This creates an atmosphere in which it is all too easy for young people to disengage from mathematics."

Stephanie Davies, creative director of Laughology, which runs workshops and training on how to use laughter to improve learning, says that comedy can engage students, making them more willing to learn. "For teachers, we look at how you can use humour as a teaching technique, so teachers don't have to prep anything differently, it's just about how you embed it in what you do already."

Back in 2008, Singh was involved in a show called Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, created by comedian Robin Ince. It included, among others, Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and comedians Josie Long and Stewart Lee. "Robin Ince deserves a huge amount of credit for the change in attitudes," Singh says. "Robin created a safe place for scientists to go out and have fun and talk to sympathetic crowds in theatre spaces; not lectures in lecture halls, but on stages with a spotlight and an audience getting tipsy. You're more likely to make jokes then - and get a laugh."

But Ince, co-presenter with Brian Cox of The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4, is no maths nerd - he has an English degree. "I just loved science when I was a kid," he says. "Then, when I was a teenager, it seemed a bit dull. But in my mid-twenties I got back into science and read a lot more, trying to understand the ideas of physics. I started to think there was not enough of it out there, so I started to put out shows with jazz bands, (comedian) Alexei Sayle and (science writer) Ben Goldacre talking about epidemiology."

Ince thinks that many of the current crop of maths and science entertainment shows awaken a basic human desire to learn. "To me, one of the most important things about education is to make people curious," he says. "It is no use knowing all the facts but not being interested in knowing why things are as they are."

So, perhaps the question is not "why is maths funny?" but "why wouldn't it be?"

"I think (the audience) is getting bigger and bigger," Ince says. "To me, the most exciting thing is the number of children coming to see our shows. They are the ones who hopefully will be enthralled enough to explore these ideas and, as they get older, start studying maths at university. It doesn't matter if it's mainstream, what matters is making sure those people who want to know about it have enough information to explore further. No one needs to be scared of maths."

What else?

Want to prevent infractions in your classroom? Need to prove to students that decimals have a point? Add a bit of fun to maths lessons with these resources.

This game of addition and subtraction dice will keep students interested. bit.lyDiceGames

Watch a Teachers TV video packed with ideas for maths games and activities. bit.lyMathsFun

These printable Sudoku cards can be laminated and used as a numeracy extension activity. bit.lySudokuCards

Try ideas for teaching times tables in a creative and active way. bit.lyActiveTimesTables

Introduce students to fractions using this chocolate-themed PowerPoint presentation. bit.lyInteractiveFractions

This activity uses basic addition and subtraction to create a QR code that links to a Sesame Street song. bit.lyQRpuzzle

Students calculate percentages and colour in a worksheet to reveal a picture bit.lyColourByNumbers

This simple board game helps children to practise addition bit.lyAdditionBoardGame

Students calculate fractions and identify the celebrity to gain points. bit.lyCelebrityFractions

In this whole-class activity, a game of darts is a route into practising subtraction. bit.lySubtractionDart.

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