Let them work out cake – Alex Bellos at Swindon Festival of Literature

14 May

Too much thinking and heat reminded me of English A Level. I would prop my A4 folder between lap and desk (to look like I was taking notes) and then nod off for a while. I really could have done with those Homer Simpson’s glasses which have wide eyes printed on the front to disguise the closed eyes behind them.

But here’s the problem with chronicling. Sometimes one is in the minority of one. The rest of the audience of young and old seemed very much awake through Alex Bellos’s talk at Swindon Arts Centre yesterday about the maths covered in his book, Alex Through the Looking Glass.

Apparently maths is relevant to everyday life. Yep got that. Numbers come in quite handy. Even my (nearly) eight year old has just had the earth shattering realisation that knowing his times tables is useful in working out how many blocks he needs to build a house in his computer game (Minecraft).

So I went in the expectation from Alex’s Twitter feed and Guardian column that there would be prefect representations of Jupiter in cake, mathematically precise tessellating artwork and geometric earrings, that sort of thing. To be fair there was the first mathematically generated art used in the poster for Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo. There was also a snippet of BBC’s Have I Got News For You where they wrung mileage out of Alex’s ‘most confusing top ten ever of the world’s favourite (favorite) top ten numbers (SPOILER: 7 is number one, followed by 3 at number two, everyone). And apparently a couple of thousand years ago, Eratosthenes (Greek philosopher) worked out the distance around the world via sunlight hitting the bottom of a certain unique Cyrenian well, which was obviously pretty clever, though I’m still none the wiser about how he worked it out. But there were also cones with the tops taken off at different angles to create different circles. Lack of sleep v auditorium heat v not-getting-it-at-all meant I really didn’t get it.

There was also something about odd numbers being male and even numbers being female. But this seemed like the kind of over-thinking philosophers do when the latest series of Game of Thrones has finished (I speak from experience).

I liked Alex’s enthusiasm and his quest to encourage more people to like maths and its importance to our lives. But it did feel a little like Alex’s favourite (favorite) maths stuff thrown into an hour. I would rather have had more cake.

Words by Louisa Davison. Photos by Calyx Pictures.

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