James Grime is a mathematician with a personal passion for maths communication and the promotion of mathematics in schools and to the general public. He can be mostly found doing exactly that, either touring the world giving public talks or on YouTube.
James has a Ph.D. in mathematics and his academic interests include group theory (the mathematics of symmetry) and combinatorics (the mathematics of networks and solving problems with diagrams and pictures). James also has a keen interest in cryptography (the mathematics of codes and secret messages), probability (games, gambling and predicting the future) and number theory (the properties of numbers).
James went on to study mathematics at Lancaster University. He was attracted by the challenge of the analytical and creative thought required in a maths degree, but it was probably the lack of essays and the reading list he found most attractive. Later, James went to York University with the aim of getting a Ph.D. and avoiding the real world for at least another three years. He was successful on both counts.
In his spare time, James has many hobbies, including juggling, unicycling and a great number of other circus skills, and has finally embraced the fact that his ultimate purpose in life may be simply to make a fool of himself in public.*
Michael Paul Goldenberg: Welcome, James. It’s very exciting to have a chance to speak with you.
James Grime: Hi Michael, I’m very happy to be here.
MPG: I’ve wanted to ask you this for years, James: where did you come up with the name, “The Singing Banana,” or would that be giving away a deep secret?
JG: Ha! In case people don’t know, singingbanana is my original YouTube channel. When people ask me about the name I like to pretend that it’s a perfectly reasonable name for a maths channel. The truth is, I have been using singingbanana as my internet name since I was 17 – when the internet was young. I took the name from my school tuck shop [Editor’s note: “canteen” to us Yanks] which itself was inspired by an advert from around the time. So that’s the name I naturally used when I first got a YouTube account – I never intended it to become so public. Having said that, I don’t want to change it, I like it.
MPG: It’s extremely memorable and evocative of a host of things. So which came first, your own video channel or Numberphile? How did you become involved with Brady Haran and the mathematicians and scientists who contribute there?
JG: My own channel was first. It started in the early days of YouTube and the videos I uploaded were holiday videos and videos of me juggling. Then one day a friend showed me a puzzle he had come up with, which was good but I wasn’t happy with the set-up for the puzzle. So I recorded a different version of the puzzle just to show my friend. To my surprise, a few other people saw the video, so I thought I would make another maths video. And that was the start of it.
A few years later Brady launched Periodic Videos, his chemistry channel. I showed this to people in my department and said, look this is what we should be doing. There wasn’t much enthusiasm. I wrote a Guardian blog about the rise of science on YouTube including channels like Periodic Videos and I contacted Brady saying if he ever makes a maths channel to let me know. And he did.
MPG: One of the first videos of yours I saw was on non-transitive dice. You were introducing some gear you’d developed and your enthusiasm was like nothing I’d ever heard or seen from a mathematician. Aside from the intriguing mathematics with which I was partially familiar (though I’d never seen dice that could be successfully played against two opponents simultaneously!), I was captivated by the excitement you were able to convey. Is that a common reaction you get?
JG: Thank you! I always believe in leading by example. And if I want people to be excited and interested in mathematics, how can I expect them to be if I don’t look interested and excited. So I try and present in that way. I remember one YouTube comment that said I was like a children’s TV presenter. I think they intended that as an insult, but that’s kind of what I am going for!
I don’t come from an academic background. So it was children’s TV that got me interested in science and maths. What’s great about YouTube is that it reaches kids all over the world, many of whom don’t come from academic backgrounds either.
MPG: It’s hardly original for me to observe that many people, quite likely most people, consider mathematics to be a rather dry subject that could never engender the sort of passion you express. Would you comment on the role of online videos in changing that perception?
JG: Absolutely. And I understand what you mean about the perception of maths being a very dry subject. Mathematicians don’t believe that but need to get our enthusiasm across. I think it’s very important to humanize the subject, to see a real person – with all their quirks – someone who is interested in what they are talking about. Even if you don’t understand it all, you can see the person’s enthusiasm. And people respond to that. That is something Numberphile has done very well.
MPG: How old were you when you started to consider seriously becoming a mathematician? Who or what were some of the big influences on your taking that path?
JG: It was a secret ambition in the back of my mind. I think I discovered that was a thing you could do when I was around 10 – and I learned that through TV. It was presenters like Johnny Ball and the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures that showed me that. However, it seemed unlikely so I kept that ambition to myself, while quietly working towards it.
Being a mathematician was always the goal, but I took it one step at a time, from A-levels, to university, to Ph.D. But part of the plan had always been to pay back what those TV presenters had done for me. So it wasn’t an accident when I started making maths YouTube videos. But no one expected it to be as popular as it became. And it has been an honor to pay back a little of what I experienced watching the presenters I watched as I child.
MPG: Let me backtrack a bit: do you run into resistance and/or criticism of what you and others who are using YouTube to reach schoolchildren and others about mathematics they would not likely encounter in K-12 classrooms? I ask in particular as someone who has encountered a strain of staunch resistance from various mathematicians, engineers, and the like straying outside the traditional school mathematics topics. In the US, what has come to be called “The Math Wars” has been going on for the past quarter century. To those on one side, everything you’re doing would be termed “math avoidance,” rather than what I would use much more positive descriptors. Have you had to deal with that kind of thing?
JG: I haven’t had that problem. Maybe it is because the UK has a long tradition of this kind of public lecture for children and the general public. I know the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures go back to Michael Faraday in 1825. I am a fan of these lectures that introduce real science in an accessible way to young people. It is true that I am trying to show people the interesting stuff beyond the school curriculum. A good analogy is how we learn music. We have to learn the basics but we are still allowed to listen to great classical pianists or your favorite pop star. In the same way, I am trying to provide inspiration and motivation for what students learn in school.
MPG: What is one of your favorite videos from your channel or Numberphile? What makes it special to you? How do you imagine teachers making use of it with students?
JG: That’s a really difficult question to answer. I think the best videos are the ones that stimulate your curiosity. I know the most popular videos are ones about infinity or dividing by zero. I think these are questions that a lot of students of maths are interested in. There are some great fun ones, viewers I meet often mention the video where we try to order 43 chicken nuggets from McDonald’s – it can’t be done by the way!
MPG: Tell us a bit about the live presentations you do. Who is the audience and what typically goes into your talks?
JG: I travel the UK and the world giving talks about maths, in particular, I talk about the history and mathematics of code breaking. It’s called The Enigma Project and I bring with me an original WWII Enigma machine – one of few left in the world. I visit schools and speaking to students of all ages, from primary school to secondary school and colleges, as well as universities, festivals and other events. It’s a pleasure to do and people love it – because codes are cool! Who doesn’t love spies and secret messages? The real message behind it all though is that it’s about solving problems and to show people what it’s like to be a mathematician.
MPG: Any projects in the works you’d like to tell us about?
JG: I am currently working on a small exhibit with the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It’s called Codebreakers and Groundbreakers and will be open from the 23rd of October 2017 to February 2018. Mainly it’s about two code-breakers, Alan Turing who broke the German Enigma code in WWII and Michael Ventris who broke a forgotten Greek script called Linear B in the 1950s. So although one was a mathematician and one was a linguist we are trying to show that there are skills these people shared. And the success of Bletchley Park in WWII was due to the collaboration of people from different disciplines.
MPG: Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, James. I hope we can get more people looking at mathematics and science via the work you and the other folks at Numberphile are doing. I can say sincerely that if something like this had been available when I was in school, I wouldn’t have waited until my mid-thirties to start playing seriously with mathematics.
JG: Thank you!
*Hence the title of this interview, coupled with my recent viewing of Robert Altman’s 1985 film of Sam Shepard’s amazing play, Fool For Love.