Don’t be shy, ask a mathematician

“I hated math in high school”

When I meet new people at a party and mention that I am a mathematician, I sometimes hear back “I hated math in high school,” or “I always hated mathematics.” To be honest, I didn’t much like it in high school either. The mathematics I did then like factoring polynomials or trigonometry has little to do with my present research in graph theory. Nevertheless, blanket statements like that feel like a slap in the face.

If you met a writer, would say you hate reading? Imagine meeting Margaret Atwood and saying you think books are horrible. If you meet a racecar driver, would you say you hate cars? If you met a chemist, would say you hate oxi-reduction reactions?

Mathematicians may appear intimidating but the good ones love to discuss their ideas. We may not all look like Pietro Boselli (university mathematics lecturer and fashion model), but it is worth chatting with us.

The tried and true method to strike up a conversation with anyone is to ask questions. The featured image of this blog is Ken Ono explaining some mathematical ideas to Dev Patel on the set of the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity (see my review). Patel looks at ease and engaged!

Here are some you can ask the next time you meet a mathematician.

Ask about their research

Don’t give them a pass: force them to explain their work in layperson’s language. Any decent mathematician can do that. For instance, do you play Sudoku? That is an example of a graph coloring problem that is computationally difficulty (i.e. NP-complete) for general-sized squares. That segues to one of the world’s deepest mysteries: whether P is equal to NP, which comes with a million dollar prize if you solve it. Frankly, there are easier ways to earn a million dollars.

Are you on Facebook? Twitter? These are real-world complex networks with evolutionary properties in common with internet architecture, and even protein networks in living cells. Cool stuff.

A protein network.

Ask them about the giant problems

Mathematicians think about tough open problems. We dream about solving them.

Talk to your resident mathematician about some famous conjectures. You might hear about recent progress by Shinichi Mochizuchi on the abc conjecture, the centuries-old Riemann hypothesis, or the Goldbach conjecture whose statement can be understood by a high school math student (every integer greater than two can be expressed as a sum of two primes).

There are also great stories about the resolution of some big conjectures, such as Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Strong Perfect graph theorem, or the Poincaré conjecture.

Maria Chudnovksy (Princeton), who helped proved the Strong Perfect Graph Theorem using ideas in her doctoral thesis.

Ask about our glitterati

Yes, there are some incredibly talented people working in mathematics. Today, actually. Right now as you read this.

Have you heard of Terrence Tao, Andrew Wiles, Maria Chudnovsky, or John Conway? These are some of the living mathematicians who have done amazing things.

Mathematical history is long and rich. You may hear about Srinivasa Ramanujan, Emmy Noether, Paul Erdős, or Alan Turing who each had a massive impact on 20th century mathematics. Or historical figures such as Euler, Riemann, Euclid, Hypatia or Ada Lovelace. Just ask.

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)



Ask how mathematics relates to the arts

Many recent movies and popular books focus on mathematicians or mathematics. The Imitation Game, The Man Who Knew Infinity, or The Theory of Everything are example of movies with lead characters who are mathematicians (Stephen Hawking at least uses advanced mathematics for his physical theories).

The Imitation Game.

There is a deep connection between mathematics and music, and between mathematics and the visual arts. I wrote a blog about these connections, citing mathematicians who sculpt, write, and make music. A famous classical example was Leonardo da Vinci, who painted the Mona Lisa but was also a gifted mathematician, writer, engineer, and inventor.

Make friends with your local mathematician. Don’t be put off by our awkwardness or shyness. There are some great discussions waiting for you.

Anthony Bonato



2 thoughts on “Don’t be shy, ask a mathematician

  1. This is a very, very basic question, but please consider and answer. I feel it touches on how children learn to understand the world
    I teach in Australia in a primary school. The maths curriculum includes a “shape” component and at year 3 level the achievement standard states that the students “Make models of three-dimensional objects and describe key features” these models are constructed of paper nets, glued together and hollow inside. At no point do the children get to see, touch or create an actual geometric 3D solid. How important do you feel it would be for their experience, understanding and thinking ( intuitive as well) to experience the actual solids – esp the Platonic solids?
    Thanks, Brenda Hawke


    1. Hi Brenda and thanks for your question. I’m not an expert in childhood education, but I think it would be very helpful to have 3D solids. Students can get a feel for their shapes and symmetries. Mathematics is more than just number crunching and rote learning. I think having students construct and interact with the solids will definitely help their geometric intuition.

      By the way, have you heard of Jump Math? This is a numeracy program for all grades, pioneered by Canadian John Mighton. Check it out:


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