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HideRobyn Williams: Last week we had a mathematician, David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge, who is a professor for the public understanding of risk. This week's mathematician, apart from the PhD you just heard, is an ambassador for maths and a stand-up comedian. Simon Pampena is with David Fisher.

Simon Pampena: I'm someone who really likes maths, studied maths, and then tried in a pioneering spirit to bring it to people through the medium of stand-up comedy.

By the time I got asked to be the ambassador I'd already done a national tour for National Science Week back in 2008, and I'd done a campaign of You Can Do Maths for the Australian Association of Maths Teachers, the government went, oh, this guy looks like he knows what he's doing, maybe we can get him on board to promote maths.

The heart and soul of my show is to debunk the nerdiness of maths. It's a stand-up comedy show, so just the mere idea of a mathematician putting maths ideas and making maths jokes and putting it on stage in front of 250 screaming 14-year-old girls, that is a way of seeing maths that is different from textbooks, chalk and talk kind of thing.

David Fisher: Sure, but are they screaming because of the maths or because you're up there with your curly hair being zany?

Simon Pampena: Well yes, it's the stand-up, that's right. So I will start the performance as a stand-up performance, but there is maths in there, there is maths from the get-go. I will start a performance with, 'How much do you like maths?' I might get someone who is brave enough to say yes, and then I say, 'This is how much I like maths,' and then I'll go into a song which is 'Brainiac', so it's to the tune of 'Maniac': [sings] 'I'm a brainiac, brainiac, that's for sure, and I'm doing maths like you've never seen before.'

But then I'll start reciting pi—3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 41971 69399 37510 58209 74944—so suddenly there's maths...I mean, pi, c'mon, that's the best number out.

David Fisher: Yes, 22 over 7.

Simon Pampena: No, it's not, it's an approximation.

David Fisher: Ah, pardon me.

Simon Pampena: Well, for starters pi is not a fraction, it's a transcendental number. Not only is it not a fraction, it's not algebraic.

David Fisher: So you're saying that it's not 22 over 7 because the decimal places that you just started reciting go on forever.

Simon Pampena: That's true, yes. Well, let's just think about that. So a number that goes on forever is...well, pi is not a fraction, pi cannot be expressed as a fraction, therefore...

David Fisher: But people do in formulae.

Simon Pampena: Well, that's an approximation.

David Fisher: In equations they write 22 over 7.

Simon Pampena: No, that's an approximation. That's an equation from an engineer maybe.

David Fisher: I think maths has changed since I went to school.

Simon Pampena: This is the crazy thing about pi is that there aren't really perfect circles in the world around us, so we can get by with having an approximation. But in maths you want to deal with perfect circles because perfect circles are simple, beautiful, infinitely symmetric. Otherwise you're dealing in a very, very many-sided polyhedra which might do the job but it's not perfect.

David Fisher: So here's a challenge for you; I want you to convince anyone listening to this that mathematics is fun.

Simon Pampena: Maths is fun for me because I love solving problems. I get a thrill out of dealing with abstract problems and trying to understand how things fit together and finding the beautiful patterns. So many people would love to go to our national parks and see all the wonderful trees and the wonderful flowers and the beautiful richness of nature. Well, that richness is in your head, you've actually got richness in your head that you can explore and you don't even need to go anywhere. Our brains are just these beautiful things.

And this is the crazy thing, maths is so new, it's only really 5,000 years old. We've been doing this stuff just for the blink of an eye really. And in this very short period of time humanity has been able to amass all this beautiful knowledge. And if you go and try and solve a maths problem, like if you try and solve Pythagoras's theorem, and I encourage you to, you don't need to know any algebra...in my show I just do it through shapes...if you actually understand Pythagoras's theorem you are entering this wonderful astral plane of mathematical ideas.

Nobody knows really what the hell maths is, where does it exist? It's in our heads. But somehow you enter this world of these beautiful ideas that just makes sense. Once you understand a mathematical fact, it is true, it is never going to be not true, and the other sciences don't have that on maths. You know, things get revised; people change their minds about things when new data comes up. Well, Pythagoras's theorem has been true for 2,500 years, it is never not going to be true.

It's fun to be part of such a wonderful intellectual activity. And I have to say, actually doing as much maths as I've done, I did maths at Adelaide Uni, I went to Melbourne Uni, I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I've ever, ever had the joy of dealing with, and I did a thesis were I had to spend six months just thinking about this really, really hard maths problem that these crazy Polish mathematicians came up with in the beginning of the 20th century, and I just was working and working, trying to understand this theorem. And when I understood it I literally felt smarter, I felt my brain...it was like some sort of roadworks had gone on in my head, and suddenly these neurons had connected. I felt like a Jedi, it was exciting.

And the idea to go to schools now…and it's like I'm the maths guy and people just ask me to multiply numbers together and it's, like, you're missing the whole point of it. It's like going to a writer and going, 'You're a writer, do you know how to spell antidisestablishmentarianism?' Okay, spelling is important, but that's not writing, writing is the expression of ideas. Well, maths is the discovery and expression of imagination and intelligence. I don't even know what it is. You can't even ask a mathematician what maths is, we don't really know what it is.

David Fisher: Really you're like a drug pusher, aren't you. Your drug is maths, you just want people to try it and get hooked.

Simon Pampena: Yes, well, why not. It is very exciting, and it does have...that's true, it does have a reward, there is a reward. This is why mathematicians do what they do. They're not doing it for the money necessarily. You don't get great money out of it. I mean, some mathematicians can go off and...

David Fisher: Actuaries aside.

Simon Pampena: Exactly. This is it, the power of the maths is...I mean, I actually worked in industry straight after I finished uni and made a lot of money for a while working in a supply chain for Fosters, of all places, doing wine demand planning, and I used my mathematical abilities. I mean, not much of them because you didn't really need much for that. But yes, it really is addictive.

Robyn Williams: And there you have two mathematicians—working for the wine industry and, before that, the movie industry—on the way to big money if they want. Simon Pampena. You may have seen him on Catalyst. A numeracy ambassador.

Guests

Simon Pampena

Australian Numeracy Ambassador

http://www.numbercrunch.com.au/home.html

Credits

Presenter Robyn Williams Producer David Fisher