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11 Jun 2010: How to talk maths in public

This week saw the first ever UK conference on how academic mathematicians can communicate their work to a wider audience. The invited speakers included Simon Singh (pictured), Chris Budd and Ian Stewart.


This week I attended the IMA workshop in Manchester “How to talk maths in public”. The aim of the workshop was to give mathematicians an introduction in public engagement whether that involves working with children in schools or engaging with the media.

There was an impressive line up of invited speakers including Simon Singh who talked about the making of the Horizon documentary “Fermat’s Last theorem”. Singh made a number of interesting points regarding what makes a good maths documentary. Perhaps the most important insight he shared was that empathy is a powerful ally in communicating even the most abstract of ideas. A beautiful example of such a “hook”, i.e. a moment of emotional impact that grabs the viewer, is to be found in the opening moments of Fermats Last Theorem (see below, indeed you can see the whole documentary on youtube!).

For me, one of the most exciting things for me was to hear Chris Budd talking about public engagement. I admit that until a few months ago I had never heard of Professor Budd but then I stumbled on a ten minute clip from a BBC 4 show called “It’s only a theory”. The point of the programme is to invite scientists onto the shown and explain their ideas to a panel of non-experts...however I think Budd and his double pendulum steal the show…

I should also mention that one of the tasks we had was to either present a mock radio show or give a public presentation or, as in our case, write a science magazine article. The article which I wrote in collaboration with my teammates (Ravi Gajria, Mark Holland Ben Sparks, Katie Steckles, Rebecca Waters) won second prize! If you want to read our retrospective of Martin Gardner see here.

© Adil Mughal 2012