Monday, October 22, 2012

James Grime, SingingBanana

Math-frolic Interview #5

"My videos are generally what I think is cool that week. Sometimes it's just a statement I see in passing somewhere, and I go look up the maths and the stories of who invented it and why. Working out how to present that information is like a glorious jigsaw puzzle. I don't treat it as a job, or work." --James Grimes

If you follow mathy videos on the Web you are almost certainly aware of British "mathematician, juggler, and comedy nerd" James Grime through one of his puckish incarnations on SingingBanana or  Numberphile (also, on Twitter HERE and Facebook HERE).  He consistently and exuberantly offers some of the most entertaining math output for general audiences. So much so, that I doubted he would have time to respond to an interview request from me... but, graciously he did so! (in fact from the replies I'm getting to such requests it seems clearer to me now that math-folks like to share their love for their much-maligned subject with any-and-all who will listen!)
So it's a special joy for me today to present answers from James Grime to my questions:


1) To start, can you tell readers a little about how your background brought you to the world of mathematics? And when did you know that you wanted to do mathematics professionally?

It all began with children's television. I don't come from an academic background, but there was programming for children in the UK about maths and science. This included people like Johnny Ball who made maths fun and interesting. And that's when I made my choice - to work in television!... Or maybe I'll be one of these 'Doctors of mathematics' I've heard about.

I also wanted to run a sweet shop.

2) What are your favorite mathematical areas of specialty to study or read about?

I study Group Theory. Group Theory is the study of symmetry, such as the rotations of a cube - but in maths symmetry means there is something you care about that you want to stay the same - that might be shape, volume, angle, or magnitude. Then you can start to mess with it, but that property you care remains invariant.I also have a soft spot for probability and statistics - the maths of games, gambling and predicting the future. This is one of the most obviously useful areas of maths, that everyone uses on a daily basis. I have been accused of being a frustrated statistician in the past - and they might be right.

Yet, you will often find me talking about Cryptography, which is one of the more interesting and exotic uses of mathematics - it's all about secrets and spies! And yet, underneath, it uses all my favourite mathematics, symmetry, combinatorics, number theory, probability and more.

3) I don't know of anyone who does more joyous, fun math videos than you do. Your enthusiasm is infectious ( a good way ;-)! Is that a persona you've cultivated for the Web, or are you simply that expressive by nature with any topic you're interested in?

I'm probably like that for everything I'm interested in. People are very quick to passionately talk about things they hate, I wish they would talk with as much passion about the things they love! How can I expect people to be excited and enthusiastic about maths if I am not leading by example! I guess I'm taking a leaf from from the children's TV presenters that inspired me.

4) Approximately how much time per week do you spend working on your various math efforts on the Web, and how do you select the topics you present?

The topics are a result of a short attention span and craving for novelty! My videos are generally what I think is cool that week. Sometimes it's just a statement I see in passing somewhere, and I go look up the maths and the stories of who invented it and why. Working out how to present that information is like a glorious jigsaw puzzle. I don't treat it as a job, or work.

5) What are some of your favorite math books that you like to read for enjoyment, and how about math books that you'd especially recommend to lay people with some math interest?

One of the books that inspired me was Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh (watch the documentary too). This book showed me the beauty of mathematics, the fascinating rich history of mathematics, and what it could be like to be a mathematician - a world with which I had no other connection.

For enthusiasts who like a bit of recreational mathematics, the puzzle books of Martin Gardner, Sam Loyd, and my pal Johnny Ball are ones I constantly like to dip into.

6) I've commented previously on my blog that it seemed as if Britain produces more excellent math communicators (per capita) than the U.S. Would you possibly agree or disagree with that? And, if you agree, care to speculate on why Britain has so many wonderful math writers? (I once asked on my blog, whether it was because of the way math is taught in Britain or the way writing is taught???)

I can only speak for myself and what has inspired me. Again, it was shows like the Royal institution Christmas Lectures which is a series of science lectures for young people televised around Christmas.

My opinion is that maths and science programming for adults and children creates a culture of more maths and science communicators. These programmes may not be to everyone's interest, but it provides an exposure to science that some children would not otherwise get.

And so that is my aim with my videos on YouTube. You don't need to chase an audience, indeed we can make videos as high-brow or as low-brow as we want them to be, and the audience will find you. But by putting that stuff out there, you can get into homes that would never have seen these ideas otherwise.

7) Mathematics education in the U.S. is quite controversial, with a lot of different/opposing viewpoints. Is that more-or-less true in Britain as well, or is the approach to math education in Britain any more unified? Also, you are involved in an educational endeavor called the "Millennium Mathematics Project" in Britain… care to elaborate on that and say how it's going?

I'm sure that is the case in the UK too, but I try to stay away from those sort of arguments!

The Millennium Mathematics Project involves a number of projects all trying to bring mathematics to life. In particular the MMP includes the NRICH website ( which is a free website of mathematical problems and investigations to enrich kid's mathematical diet; Plus Magazine ( with news and articles for the older students; and roadshows for students of all ages, and a speaker will come in and run activities in your school.

I run one of these roadshows, called the Enigma Project ( all about the history and mathematics of codes and code breaking - including a demonstration of an original WWII Enigma Machine! Very cool.

My job is to inspire and motivate (children, teachers and the general public alike), I travel all over the UK and the world, and speak to thousands of people. Great fun.

Here's a fun game, try to guess when the Millennium Mathematics Project was established...

8) Can you explain where the "SingingBanana" name for your blog originates from (or is that top-secret)?

Oh, well, now that you've put it like that I'll have to keep it a mystery! I can tell you I do reveal the answer in one of my videos, but which one? I guess people will have to watch them all!

Fair enough, and a suggestion I would second!


-- Sincere thanks Jim for taking time from a busy schedule to tell my readers more about yourself and your thoughts on math. Keep up the great work... and I hope some day you have that sweet shop!

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