Maths - Seeing the funny side

1st June 2012 at 01:00
A comedy show about maths is more than the sum of its parts

Dara O'Briain does get about. Whether he is hosting Mock the Week, or working alongside Brian Cox on Stargazing Live, or teaming up with Griff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath for Three Men in a Boat, there's no question of him being under-exposed. But it was with mixed feelings that I heard O'Briain was taking the lead in a popular maths show. Would one of my heroes be taking another step towards sainthood? Or would I end up cringing in pain and pity?

I gave The School of Hard Sums a chance, although O'Briain himself was initially dubious. And certainly the format is intriguing, with O'Briain as the host and mathematician who has invited along a friend (and non-mathematician) for the ride. The equally ubiquitous Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, gamely plays the role of the problem-setter and "explainer", while in the background are two bright young university maths students.

O'Briain tackles a problem using his trusty mathematics skills, while the guest comedian, sometimes with the help of members of the public, uses a mixture of brute force, common sense and trial and error.

The problems are usually well-known to veteran puzzlers; it's hard to believe that O'Briain has never seen any of them before. With three attempts at each - from O'Briain, his guest and the students - the chance of finding a solution is high. But the show does have a competitive feel to it. When O'Briain is beaten to the answer by fellow Irishman David O'Doherty in one episode, his petulance is obvious, as though he is within an inch of throwing down his pen and flouncing off, saying: "Well, I never liked maths anyway."

The formula took a while to get going: Du Sautoy tried initially to be another comedian - bad idea - and O'Briain's no-holds-barred one-liners left him looking uneasy. Now, however, he has found his niche. And there are nice touches, like O'Briain writing authoritatively on a window, as all good mathematicians should. By the end of the second programme, I was convinced - this works.

So will your pupils learn anything? As O'Briain says: "It's not like the kids are going to go, 'Wow, what is that large bald fat man doing now that we should all do? He is the weathervane of cool!' I'm more interested in entertaining those who already enjoy the thing."

Well, The School of Hard Sums does exactly that.

Jonny Griffiths teaches maths at a sixth-form college

What else?

Make short division exciting with a code-breaking activity from lauramathswilson.

Pit pupils against each other in a maths challenge with bluerose's cards.

In the forums

What activities would you suggest for a maths fun day? Already on the TES maths forum list are ratio jellies, giant battleships and code-breaking tasks.

Find all links and resources at

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