An Interview with a Juggling Mathematician

A summer placement student at work was juggling in the office today and I remembered that back when I was a member of the University of Liverpool’s Junior Maths Society, I interviewed the brilliant mathematician and juggler Colin Wright with my friend Caroline. We recorded it and wrote the transcript up for the school STEM magazine “The πoneer” and I even won a Special STEM Leaders Award for it so I’m not sure how I’d managed to forget about it.

For those that don’t know, Colin Wright is this quirky mathematician who likes to juggle and do other tricks – you can see his website for more details about him –  and I thought I would share the interview with everyone because, well, I can.


What is your favourite number and why?

(Laughs) I’m often asked this. It varies. I love e. I think e is a fantastic number. It pops up in unexpected places and I’ll give you one example of that. Suppose you pick random numbers in the range 0 to 1 and you keep doing that until the total is bigger than 1. So obviously your first number isn’t enough. Second number might not be enough, but it might be. On average how many numbers do you need to take to do that? And the answer is e! And nobody really has explained to me clearly why- actually I know why, but yeah. I love e. The other number I really really like is 28 because it’s a perfect number.

How did you get into maths?

I honestly don’t remember. I remember liking maths ever since I was really small but I come from Melbourne, my parents come from Sydney originally, and in the holidays we always used to go back to Sydney to visit my grandparents, and we’d get 50 miles out of Melbourne and my father would say, ‘Ok so we’ve been going for an hour and we’ve got 600 miles to go, we’ve done 50 miles, when do you think we’ll arrive? You know, it was 3 in the morning, actually by then it was 4 in the morning, what time do you think we’ll get there. And so I used to have to try and work out what time I thought we’d get there. And he’d give his guess and I’d give my guess and it always turned out that he was more accurate than I was. Later on I realised that he would speed up and slow down to make sure his answer was right and my answer was wrong, but that’s beside the point, and I’ve just always done maths. I’ve always done arithmetic and then I found there’s sooo much more to maths than just sums, and that’s why I really got hooked on it.

Why would you encourage others into maths?

Why? Well it is fun. It can be fun. It’s hard. I’m not going to say it’s not hard and the maths club that we have here is intended to show glimpses of the interesting bits, but underneath its hard. Yeah I can say it’s great for finding jobs and employers always want people who are good at maths, but if you are good at maths and if you do do maths, you can go pretty much anywhere. You can go into any subject you like. You can go into computing or physics or engineering, or indeed into languages or anything else. Maths is always helpful anywhere you go, and on the way if you get people to show you some of the more interesting sides of it, it can be just really cool fun!

Are there any books or anything to recommend for those interested in doing maths?

It depends on whether you’re looking for something with puzzles or something that’s specifically for helping with school maths. I can’t help you with the school maths stuff. Almost anything by Rob Easterway has some really good maths puzzles in it and some good questions. Also the popular presentations by Ian Stewart; they’re also very good, and they’re a bit dated now but almost anything by Martin Gardener is great to show the fun side of maths. There are many more. It’s a very very rich area of recreational maths and there are many books published on it. Those are just a small sample of the ones that I can visualise on my own bookshelf now.

Infinity or finite?

Well now there are those who claim that infinity doesn’t exist, but I work with infinity every day, even though I’m actually an industrial mathematician and working with very practical physical things. To be able to use infinite techniques is very very powerful.  I use infinite techniques, I know that there’s more than one size of infinity, there’s more than one type of infinity, but it’s an area where a lot of people get very confused, and rightly so. It was the mid 1800s before people really nailed down what was going on and even then there were nasty surprises in the early 1900s. Both types of infinity have given us nasty surprises, but that’s a really fun area to explore as well.

Rational or irrational?

(Laughs) Well everybody says I’m irrational! And indeed e is not only irrational which means it can’t be represented as a fraction. e is also transcendental which means it can’t even be represented as the answer to a polynomial equation- so definitely irrational.

Real or imaginary?

…Or a combination of the two, which is complex. And I’m definitely complex- well I’m a simple person, but people see me as being complex until they get to know me.

What is reality? Is it a large mathematical structure?

People say I departed reality a long time ago so I’m really not sure about that! Mathematics turns out to be brilliant at helping us to understand, predict and control what goes on around us. And the fact that mathematics is so unreasonably good at doing that makes you wonder if there’s more going on than otherwise, but that’s starting to get into the realms of philosophy, and I’m a problem solver, I like to solve problems, and I can’t see that there’s a problem there that I’m ever going  be able to solve. It’s a bit big for me.

If you could be a famous mathematician for a day, who would you be any why?

Euler! Euler is my hero without a question. He went blind and still published 50 or 60 books after he went blind. He is the most prolific mathematician who ever lived and his arguments…. Once you know enough mathematics, this comment makes sense. His arguments are just utterly reckless, and yet they’re always right. He never seemed to fall into the trap that other people fell into. An absolute genius! And well I don’t think being him for a day would necessarily be that great. I don’t know what it was like inside his head but to have known him and to have been able to share in what he did…that would be fantastic.

What is the highlight of your career?

With any luck my highlight hasn’t come yet. But I was never very good as a research mathematician, as I say, I am kind of a problem solver, and I solved some problems, got my PHD, but I have found my niche in going out and showing other people why maths is fun. And one of the highlights is somebody sending me an e-mail saying ‘I never thought maths was interesting, and now I’ve gone on and done a degree in maths, and it’s been absolutely brilliant, and it’s all your fault’. And I’ll take that. That’s good enough.

What is your favourite equation?

Without question Euler’s identity: . It’s just a complete mystery as to where it comes from, and it’s just absolutely gorgeous.

π or e? I’m guessing e?

e definitely (laughs).



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