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Maths, Teamwork and Googlies

The Zeeman medal - and lecture

On 22nd March 2017 I was thrilled to receive the Zeeman medal for excellence in the communication of maths to the general public, awarded jointly by the London Mathematical Society and the Institute of Maths and its Applications.  The previous recipients have all been maths Professors for whom I have huge respect, Ian Stewart, Marcus du Sautoy and John Barrow, and it's a real honour to be in such  prestigious company.

The medal ceremony was held at the Royal Society in London, and as part of it I gave a lecture (sorry, talk - I don't do lectures) to the invited audience.  I chose teamwork and cricket as my theme.

Here's a short article I wrote for the LMS newsletter, based broadly on what I said in my talk (but omitting a couple of the games I got the audience to play):


I was delighted when I discovered that Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman liked googlies. Or at least, that he liked mathematical googlies.

I should explain, for anyone not up with cricket terminology, that a googly is a particular type of slow delivery which spins in the opposite direction to the one that the batsman is expecting. In other words a googly is a cricketing surprise. (It was invented in 1897 by Bernard Bosanquet, father of the late ITN newsreader Reginald.)

Surprises were at the heart of Zeeman’s love of maths. Asked about the secret of how to get pupils engaged in maths, he once said: “You have to find a subject that is ‘playable’ – then you exploit the play area, and usually there’s some sort of surprise to it”.

I share Zeeman’s love of mathematical googlies. It’s what got me hooked in the subject in the first place, and has been the basis of much of the material that I use to engage the public with maths.  

The common perception of maths is that it is a solitary activity. But, in another analogy with cricket, maths can be as much about teamwork and partnerships, in which individuals of very different abilities can combine for the greater good. Many of the most fruitful and enjoyable experiences that I have had in maths have come from partnership with others – particularly when writing books.

My first such partnership was with David Wells, with whom I compiled The Guinness Book of Mindbenders, a puzzle book that has long vanished into obscurity. It was David who showed me that puzzles and games are at the heart of mathematics, and that big mathematical ideas can come from very simple activities.

Take the beer mat game, for example. Two players each have a stack of beer mats, and take it in turns to put a mat on the table, with no overlapping allowed. The game ends when one player can no longer find a space to put a mat. One can imagine the geometry of working out where to place a mat getting quite involved, yet it turns out that with a simple strategy Player 1 can always win. All they need to do is place the first mat in the centre of the table. Thereafter whatever move Player 2 makes, Player 1 repeats, but diametrically across the table. If Player 2 is able to go, then Player 1 can too.

I encountered other mathematical googlies with Jeremy Wyndham, with whom I wrote the more successful book Why Do Buses Come In Threes? That book very nearly went by the title How Fast Should You Run In the Rain? and includes one of the most wonderfully useless bits of applied maths that I know. If rain is falling vertically, then you stay driest if you run as fast as possible. But if you are of ‘normal’ build and the rain is angling from behind you at more than 15 degrees, you should run no faster than the horizontal component of the rain’s speed.

I could add many more examples to these, from work I’ve done with John Haigh, Mike Askew and others.

Of course these partnerships are nothing when compared to the most famous pairing in maths, G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan. Yet one of the joys of maths is that mathematicians of all levels can often get enjoyment from the same simple mathematical puzzle.

There is another field in which G.H. Hardy and I would have connected, for in addition to maths Hardy’s other great passion was cricket. For a while he ran a cricket team, The Mathematicals. I have a photo of that team. Loitering at the back, hands in pockets, is a young man by the name of Stephen Bosanquet, later to become a notable mathematician. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he was a distant cousin of the inventor of the googly.

In cricket, as in maths, it sometimes feels as if everything, and everyone, is connected.