How to Talk Maths in Public – An IMA Conference on Public Engagement

Date: Tuesday 8 – Wednesday 9 June 2010
Location: University of Manchester

Mathematics is receiving an ever increasing public profile. From academics’ lectures and school masterclasses, to mathematical features in newspapers and television documentaries, popular books – even mathematicians modelling designer clothes in mens’ magazines – there has never been more mathematics on display. Mathematics holds an intrinsic fascination for most people, whether they feel they can understand it or whether they feel they are left baffled, and the usefulness of mathematics for the health of the Economy is often cited.

However, the need for professional engagement with the public in mathematics has never been greater. Whilst the UK has a remarkable tradition in research in mathematics and its applications, the public understanding in this country of the role and ubiquity of mathematics, at even a basic level, is woefully lacking. It can be concluded that public engagement in mathematics is at an unacceptably low level. This is indicated in many ways ranging from the shortage of trained mathematics teachers and dropping standards in GCSE and A-level mathematics to the lack of understanding of the power and utility of mathematics by the decision makers in government and business. Perhaps worst of all, it is still generally acceptable in the UK for individuals to declare (with pride) their poor mathematical ability!

The Event

Several key people are working hard to remedy the above deficiencies, but the handful of dedicated individuals that are engaged in the promotion of mathematics to the public needs to be reinforced. We are thus planning a two-day conference, at the University of Manchester, which aims to provide a key mechanism for achieving this end. It will bring together mathematicians already active in public engagement with others who want to be empowered to be the ambassadors for change. It is targeted at academic staff in universities (especially early career mathematicians and research assistants), postgraduates, specialist teachers in schools and FE colleges, and others in industry, commerce and the media.

Leading mathematics communicators will speak, offer workshops and run interactive sessions. These will include:

  • can a respectable professional mathematician engage with the public?
  • engaging with the press and media
  • writing a popular maths book
  • how much maths is too much?
  • routes to funding for public engagement
  • a talent show: e x factor

Organising Committee

Steve Humble aka Dr Maths, National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics
David Abrahams, University of Manchester
Chris Budd, University of Bath
Sara Santos, Clothworkers’ Fellow in Mathematics, The Royal Institution of Great Britain
John Haigh
Rob Eastaway
Caroline Davis,
Mathematics Promotions Unit


Ian Stewart, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at University of Warwick and winner of 2008 LMS-IMA Christopher Zeeman medal for promotion of mathematics.
Mathematician’s Non-Apology
Abstract: In 1940 Godfrey Harold Hardy wrote A Mathematician’s Apology, with its highly quotable opening sentence: “It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics.” Followed up by “Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.”

I have some sympathy with what he was trying to say, and the later unfolding of the book tones it down somewhat. Doing real, serious mathematical research is more significant, intellectually, than merely packaging that research into something that the general public can understand. Even more so if what you package is somebody else’s work. And if all you ever do is exposition, criticism, and appreciation, then your mind might well be second-rate.

Then again, it might not be. It depends on what you are expounding, criticising, or appreciating, on why you are doing those things, and on how you are doing them.

Hardy wrote in a different age, from the shelter of a Cambridge college, where intellectual pursuits could be performed for their intrinsic worth, and where they did not need to be justified to outsiders. It was a comfy, cosy world, and of course it couldn’t last.

For the last twenty or thirty years, mathematicians have been coming to terms with the grim reality: unless we tell the outside world what we are doing, and why, and how, then most people will assume we’re not doing anything. Support for mathematics will dry up, students will drift into other, sexier subjects, and ultimately our grand enterprise will falter, and perhaps even fail.

Some really good mathematicians are good at popularisation, but don’t want to do it. Some would be bad at it, but (fortunately) don’t want to do it. Some who would be bad at it do want to do it (no names, no pack drill). And some who are actually quite good at it — though maybe not at the very highest level, where undivided attention is a must—want to do it, can do it, and do do it.

What in Hardy’s day, and right into the 1970s, used to be frowned on, is now welcomed. Instead of being criticised for wasting time on popularisation when they could be doing research, mathematicians are now more likely to be criticised for wasting time on research when they could be doing popularisation— or outreach, or public awareness, or whatever adds brownie points or lets the boxes be decorated with that oh-so-desirable tick.

I’ve spent much of my life as a fully-fledged professional mathematician, in a university, doing my research, my teaching (until 1997 when I traded it for Public Understanding of Science), and all the other things that mathematicians do. I think I was lucky: Warwick University always valued outreach activities… as long as you did everything else too. I think that most universities have now come to realise that you can expound, criticise, or appreciate your subject in public, while remaining academically respectable. The trick is not to dumb it down—at least, no more than necessary. As Albert Einstein said: “As simple as possible, but not more so.”

So, unlike Hardy, I don’t think I have anything to apologise for. The talk will examine some of the activities for which I am not apologising.

If apologies seem necessary after the talk, they will be offered.

Biography: Ian Stewart was born in 1945, educated at Cambridge (MA) and Warwick (PhD). He has four honorary doctorates (Open University, Westminster, Louvain, and Kingston) and is currently Professor of Mathematics at Warwick University. He has held visiting positions in Germany, New Zealand, and the USA. His awards include the Royal Society’s Faraday Medal, the Communications Award of the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics, the Gold Medal of the Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications, and the Public Understanding of Science Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2001.

He has published over 70 books including Nature’s Numbers, The Collapse of Chaos, Does God Play Dice? Figments of Reality, Life’s Other Secret, Flatterland, What Shape is a Snowflake?, Why Beauty is Truth, Taming the Infinite, and the bestselling series The Science of Discworld I, II, and III (with Terry Pratchett and Jack Cohen). Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities made number 6 on, and has been followed by Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures. His most recent book is Cows in the Maze.

He has also written two science fiction novels Wheelers and Heaven (with Jack Cohen). The Italian translation of Letters to a Young Mathematician won the 2006 Peano Prize, and The Symmetry Perspective won the 2001 Balaguer Prize.

He makes frequent radio and television appearances, including the 1997 Christmas Lectures, and is mathematics consultant for New Scientist. He is an active research mathematician with over 180 published papers, and works on pattern formation and chaos.

Marcus du Sautoy, Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, by video link.

David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University.
Talking to the media
Abstract: Compared to people like Marcus du Sautoy and Ian Stewart, I am a newcomer to this media business. But since I got the job as Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk in Cambridge I have, rather late in life, been learning something about talking maths to the media. Or, in my case, probability and statistics in the guise of discussing risk. My CV now covers quote a lot of radio, both live and recorded, and writing articles in the mainstream media and blogs. And a bit of TV. Being old, I feel most comfortable with traditional media, and although I increasingly enjoy blogging, I cannot get used to whittering on twitter.

Most of what I can say about talking maths to the media applies to talking anything to the media, and from my very limited experience I do have a few conclusions about radio and TV. Although media people may disparage media training, I am very pleased to have received some from the MRC. Apart from showing what can go wrong, and practising being grilled about difficult subjects, they emphasised a few general points that have proved really useful.

The first, and most crucial, is preparation. Working out the three main things that need to be said, and even the phrases that sound good, and making sure that they get said, while appearing to answer the questions beings asked. Even if a researcher says what the questions are likely to be, when it comes to an interviewer such as John Humphrys, he will ask just what he wants. Which is why it is acceptable, if asked for a quote or a recorded interview, to ask to call back later in order to have time to prepare. But you do need to be available at all times and get back to people quickly.

Second, despite the popular image of the boffin with explosive hair and pebble spectacles, it is good to try to be reasonably human, and possibly even amusing if that is your natural state. And definitely not defensive. I was recently challenged on this having made a possibly ill-advised predictions about the premier league which proved disastrously inaccurate.

Third, beware of being set up, when a producer has a script that calls for an ‘expert’ to express a desired opinion, and they have phoned around until they have found a suitable mug. I, dear reader, have been that mug. Fourth, expect to be cut. Twice I have been completely edited out of TV programmes after spending hours filming. Live is preferable.

All these are general media points you can get from any manual. What about maths in particular?

There appears to be a huge and growing appetite for accessible explanations of fairly technical issues. It is great if they can be made relevant to real world, but this does not seem to be essential: if they are communicated with enthusiasm, and maybe even passion, then there is an audience. The recent Horizon programme about Infinity was very popular in spite of having no practical interest for anyone watching, just comprising ideas. “No equations, no jargon” is the standard mantra about science communication, but some technical language seems to be Ok provided that it is clearly identified and the general tone is appropriate for, say, a non-scientific friend.

Stories, analogies, images are important, conveying the excitement and the fascination of the subject – in any case, nobody will afterwards remember any details whatsoever, except of course some colleagues who may delight in finding fault.

If contacted by journalists for a newspaper article, don’t expect to be able to check what is written, so assume that everything said might be reported, and take care on the phone, since everything you say may be taken down and used as evidence against you. Writing your own articles provides the greatest opportunity: practice on your blog, submit to other blogs (eg the Times Science blog), submit to Comment is Free in the Guardian (although be prepared to then endure fatuous personal comments).

But what is the point of all this activity? I have to admit that I don’t study the “public understanding of science” and don’t feel a particular need to academically analyse what I do. I know that simply talking at people, without proper two-way engagement and participation, may be thought anachronistic, and in broader educational work I try and do better. But given the current media there is still a role for the ‘performance’ element in science communication, and long may it last.

Finally, I have to admit it helps being a professor from the University of Cambridge. But against that I am a grey-haired old male.

Biography: David Spiegelhalter has been Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge since October 2007, which he combines with being a Senior Scientist in the MRC Biostatistics Unit. His background is in medical statistics, with an emphasis on Bayesian methods: his MRC team developed the BUGS software which has become the primary platform for applying modern Bayesian analysis using simulation technology. He has worked on clinical trials and drug safety and consulted and taught in a number of pharmaceutical companies, and also collaborates on developing methods for health technology assessment applicable to organisations such as NICE. His interest in performance monitoring led to his being asked to lead the statistical team in the Bristol Royal Infirmary Inquiry, and he also gave evidence to the Shipman Inquiry.

In his post he leads a small team which attempts to improve the way in which the quantitative aspects of risk and uncertainty are discussed in society. The website features a wide range of resources, and he works closely with the Millennium Mathematics Project in trying to bring risk and uncertainty into education. He gives many presentations to schools and others, advises organisations on risk communication, and is a regular newspaper columnist on current risk issues.

He was elected FRS in 2005 and awarded an OBE in 2006 for services to medical statistics.

Chris Budd, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Bath University and organiser of Bath Taps into Science Festival.

Rob Eastaway, Maths Inspiration.

Edmund Harriss, University of Leicester
Building and Seeing Mathematics


Steve Humble, Dr Maths and NCETM.

Matt Parker, Stand up Mathematician.

Sara Santos, Clothworkers’ Fellow in Mathematics at the Royal Institution.

Simon Singh
Crossing the Line – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in science communication
Abstract: Good communication often relies on simplifying the core ideas, highlighting the human aspect of the story and generating an exciting conclusion. However, what happens simplification turns into inaccuracies, human drama turns into fiction and exciting conclusions become sensationalist and scare-mongering.

Biography: Simon Singh completed a PhD in particle physics before joining the BBC science department and working on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon. He directed the documentary Fermat’s Last Theorem, which won a BAFTA in 1997. He then wrote a book on the same subject and has since written three other books on cryptography, cosmology and alternative medicine.


John Haigh and David Acheson
Writing a popular maths book
Despite the large number of ‘Mathematics for the Layman’ books in print, publishers are still keen for new titles on this theme. Ways in which such books might be more, or less, successful will be suggested.

Biography: John Haigh is a Semi-retired Reader in Mathematics at Sussex University.

Biography: David Acheson is the author of ‘1089 and All That’. He is an Emeritus Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford and currently President of the Mathematical Association.

Steve Humble and Rachel Thomas
Public Engagment with Written Mathematics
Everyone hates maths, or do they? The success of popular maths books, tv and radio shows, newspaper columns, magazines and puzzles has shown that the general public has a huge appetite for engaging and accessible maths.

When maths is presented to a wider audience in an inviting, fascinating and exciting way, people are encouraged to step inside a subject that may have once seemed abstract or even frightening at school. This session will explore how the presenters have written about maths for a range of audiences.


Tuesday, 8th June 2010

12.00 Registration, team allocation and lunch
13.30 Welcome and Opening (Steve Humble and David Abrahams)
13.45 Ian Stewart‘A Mathematician’s Non-Apology’, Q&A
14.25 Marcus du Sautoy video link, Q&A
14.45 David Spiegelhalter‘Talking to the Media ’, Q&A
15.25 Refreshments
15.55 Breakout Sessions (30 minutes each; delegates attend two, with 5 minutes movement time):

17.00 Chris Budd/Rob Eastaway – ‘How much maths is too much maths?’, Q&A
17.40 End of 1st day talks
19.00 Drinks and conference Dinner (after dinner speaker: Matt Parker)


Wednesday, 9th June 2010

09.00 ‘Speed Dating’
09.30 Simon Singh – ‘Crossing the Line – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in science communication’
10.00 Meet your mentor – outline of ex factor output explained
e^x factor output
‘Differential Equations’ (Radio Group I)
‘Superbugs, DNA and Knots’ (Radio Group II)
‘Pythagorus’ (Presentation for a general audience)
‘Evidence in the Ashes’ (Written Group I)
‘Is the magic over?’ (Written Group II)
10.30 Group activity
11.30 Mentor feedback
12.00 Completion of activity/output
12.30 Lunch (during this time, written pieces and talks will be uploaded to a central computer and/or printed, ready for the afternoon presentations)
13.30 ex factor Presentations
15.00 Tea/Coffee – Judges Discussion
15.30 Prizes (for best work in each category) and short Panel Discussion
16.30 Close


Please apply as soon as possible as numbers are limited – thanks to EPSRC support places will be fully funded, covering the conference fee, accommodation and up to £100 for travel expenses. In order to register, please email Chris Budd ( and David Abrahams ( cc’ing with a 50 word statement to support your case. Please put “IMA PE Conference” in the subject box of the email. Priority will be given to early career researchers (incl. post docs and PhD students) and teachers.


For all administrative enquiries

Conference Officer
The Institute of Mathematics and Its Applications
Catherine Richards House
16 Nelson Street
Essex SS1 1EF
Direct Dial: +44 (0) 1702 356104
Fax: +44 (0) 1702 354111

We are grateful to have received funding from:

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