Why I loved the MathsJam conference

Because, well, what’s not to love? About 100 mathematicians gathered together to play with maths for a whole weekend. What, in all seriousness, could be better?

There’s something fantastic about there being, in one room, probably about as much mathematical brainpower as the Manhattan Project, and for all of that brainpower to be temporarily focussed on the concentration of Tesco stores in Liverpool.

Because, for me, that’s what the MathsJam annual conference is about: taking a fairly simple idea, and analysing it to a far greater depth than would be acceptable anywhere else. Joel Haddley‘s ‘Tescoefficient’ talk is a perfect example: taking a silly pun and constructing a terrific demonstration of Voronoi diagrams (one of my favourite bits of geometry). In a similar vein, tram-troller extraordinaire Andrew Taylor hacked together the OEIS with a computer clock to auto-tweet interesting dates, of the sort that idiot Facebook users often claim come up every 823 years (follow: Phil Ramsden spent his five minutes figuring out the values of $n$ that permit sestina-like rhyme-schemes – and linking these ‘sheerly poetic’ numbers to the primes.

Another theme that ran through the event was the preponderance of mentions of roots of two – David Bedford (I think) threw in a lovely geometric proof involving overlapping squares almost as an aside (let $a$ and $b$ be the smallest integers such that $a^2 = 2b^2$ and consider a square of side $a$. Place squares of side $b$ at opposite corners, and the area of overlap $(2b-a)^2$ must equal the areas empty squares in the corners, which come to $2(a-b)^2$ – giving smaller integers that satisfy the condition), and Francis Hunt (who appears not to be on twitter) used an origami-based argument giving similar sums. Finally, Julia Collins sneakily showed that $2^{\frac{1}{n}}$ is irrational for integers $n > 2$; otherwise, you’d have $2 = \left( \frac{p}{q} \right)^n$, or $2q^n = p^n$. But wait – $2q^n = q^n + q^n = p^n$, and if that was true, Fermat’s margin would have been easily wide enough for a counter-example.

The talks are only a small part of MathsJam, though – I love the sheer range of mathematicians, from sixth formers like Yuen and Oliver to ‘serious’ academics, I love that I get to put real-life faces to people I only knew off of twitter including Calvin Smith and WBU co-host Dave Gale, and people I met last year who now seem like friends I’ve known for ever (a cheery wave to Elizabeth, Nick and Miles, among many others.)

I love that nobody ever says “I was never any good at maths.”

But most of all, I love that one minute you and a postdoc banging your head against a problem a student brought with them, and the next minute your maths-author-hero Rob Eastaway is bringing you a coffee as a pretext of getting a clue about a puzzle you mentioned the day before.

If you were there? Thank you for making it awesome. If you weren’t? Hopefully see you next year, where you can make it awesomer still.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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