Maths on Screen

Are You Feeling Lucky?

(Probability, statistics and fractals)

Ages 13-16

How Improbable is That?
Matt Parker investigates the Lottery, coin and dice games and some remarkable everyday coincidences and reveals that probability – and improbability – is everywhere.

Luck or Fate: Surprises in Randomness
Ben Sparks explores the way in which the random rolls of a dice can lead to patterns that are far from random, including some stunning illustrations of the infinite beauty of fractals.


The Presenters

Matt Parker - TV Presenter and Stand-up Mathematician

Ben Sparks - Maths Busker and Teacher


What Ben and Matt have to say about learning maths.


What did you think of maths when you were at school?
I was good at it (at GCSE), but that was about as far as it went. I took a 'Further Maths' A-level (mainly out of curiosity), although I distinctly remember my teacher saying how pointless it all was unless I wanted to be an academic mathematician. It was a turning point for me though... for the first time at school I was suddenly fascinated and curious about the bits of 'real' maths I was getting glimpses of. Complex numbers have remained a passion ever since!

Why do you look familar?
I have an identical twin brother (called Tim) - which means there is precisely (!?) double the chance that you've seen my face (or a genetically identical one) somewhere before.

Which was your favourite bit of maths at school?
Complex numbers (the imaginary ones that come from square rooting negative numbers).

Is there any maths that you don’t like?
I hated stats. For a long time. Mainly because I never really studied much of it... then someone patiently explained the Central Limit Theorem to me... which is frankly jaw dropping.  Later, I had to teach it to similarly moaning students... then started to realise how desperately important it is, and how genuinely (and humanly) fascinating it is.

Has maths ever helped you get out of a difficult situation?
Countless 'maths' magic tricks have filled many an awkward social moment... whether they were successful is another question!

What did you do at university?
I studied maths. But didn't really get it. I got through it... it was only when I trained as a teacher that I suddenly 'got' how exciting and provocative mathematics could be... even at school level.

What’s your favourite number?
i - it encapsulates the weird question of whether we're just making maths up, or whether (as weird as it might feel) we're discovering stuff that's been there all along.

What do you like APART from maths?
I love music (and making it - occasionally busking on the streets). Good food (and beer). Photography (and being in nice places which are conducive to good photographs). Non-trivial chat!

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Lake District, Cumbria - I've been around the world and still love it there...

If you could give one maths tip to a 15 year old, what would it be?
It's PERFECTLY NORMAL to struggle with maths problems. It's kind of the whole point of 'problem solving' - you'll have problems... it's utterly ABNORMAL never too find it difficult. Most things in life that are worth doing are slightly difficult.

What was the most unusual place you ever gave a maths talk?
Sitting in a hot tub with some pretty ladies, watching the sun go down over the beach in New Zealand... they wanted to know the story of maths... It seemed to go down pretty well...

What’s your favourite maths-related song?
The Shape of my Heart (Sting) - a song about a poker player - containing the lines:

He deals the cards to find the answers
The Sacred Geometry of Chance
A hidden law of a probable outcome
The numbers lead a dance.



Which was your favourite bit of maths at school?
When I first learned about calculus, I thought it was amazing. If only someone had come into the classroom when were first learning differentiation, warning everyone that we’d never escape from it for as long as we did maths!

Which bit of maths is your least favourite?
I’m not a huge fan of circle theorems. I like circles and all, but I just cannot get excited about  memorising lots of rules about which angles go where.

What did you do at university?
It’s a bit of a secret that for my first two years of university I was actually studying Mechanical Engineering and Physics. I quickly realised that as much as I love Mech Eng, it is more of a hobby for me and I couldn’t see myself doing that as a career. So I stuck to Physics and picked up some extra Maths courses, so at the end I did one extra year to complete my Maths Degree.

What’s your favourite number?
It’s currently 10,080 but I’ve been known to change my mind about my favourite number every now and then…

What do you like APART from maths?
I am a big fan of comedy and as well as doing my own shows, I try to see a much live stand-up as I can. To relax at home, I tend to play retro video games (someone has to stop those invaders from space). I’m also trying to learn more biology by reading popular science books about it; I never really enjoyed it at school but now that I don’t have to do any exams, I’m enjoying the interesting bits of biology.

What did you think of maths when you were at school?
I really enjoyed it all along. I was quite geeky in that regard. At school I couldn’t decided if I enjoyed physics or maths more and it was only when I was at university that I realised I’m happiest when the equations work out correctly – during my physics degree I was a closest mathematician.

What was the most unusual place you ever gave a maths talk?
I was once the in-ship entertainment on a cruise. It was a very sciencey cruise to see a solar eclipse, so they enjoyed some evening maths shows.

What’s your favourite maths-related song?
“Maths” by deadmou5. You can taste the maths.

Has maths ever helped you get out of a difficult situation?
Yes, without maths I would have had to get a real job by now…

Has maths ever helped you win anything?
I am well aware that all casino games are mathematically designed so the player always loses money in the long run. But that doesn’t mean you definitely lose in the short-term. So the last time I was in Las Vegas with some friends, I only played games with a high statistical deviation and then quit the moment I was ahead. After a weekend, I was $40 in front. Take that, Vegas.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Well, I could live anywhere in the world and I seem to have selected London, so the evidence suggests that the answer. I’m originally from Australia (Perth in Western Australia) and while I love going back there for holidays, of all the places I could live in the world, the sheer potential and excitement of London keeps me here.

If you could give one maths tip to a 15 year old, what would it be?
Be sure to do keep doing bits you enjoy. Much of the maths you learn at school takes hard work and repetition to learn and is not very exciting. However, you are working towards bigger maths goals and you need to keep that in sight. Make sure you’re also doing puzzles and looking at the exciting bits of maths to keep yourself motivated.


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