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Johnny Ball – Four Way Interview

Johnny Ball has written a number of books on mathematics for younger readers. He has long been a British TV favourite with shows like Think of a Number, which have made maths, science and technology accessible and fun. His latest book is Mathemagicians.
Why Maths?
I had a disastrous secondary education in Bolton, leaving school at 16 with just 2 ‘O’ levels. However it was pretty certain that I got 100% in maths. I gained three more subjects and joined a business course with De Havilland Aircraft Corp, Lostock, Bolton, heading for Cost and Works Accountancy. I also trained myself to multiply double figures instantly and generally played around with maths concepts.
However, I joined the RAF for 3 years, which was in effect my University. All through this period, I had been collecting books on recreational maths and it has been my lifelong hobby. The main influence was Martin Gardner, who wrote for Scientific American. Incidentally, when he retired, the magazine’s circulation dropped by around 1/3rd.
After the RAF I joined Butlin’s as a Redcoat and developed as a stand up comedian, which had been my goal since age 11. During my 14 year comedy career, I joined BBC Children’s TV, ostensibly to learn about TV. I tried my hand at writing sit com, which nearly came off twice. I also wrote a comedy series Cabbages and Kings and most of the comedy for Playaway. Around 1978 they asked what I would do with my own show and I said “Recreational Maths” and watched their jaws drop. Think of a Number came from that and gained a BAFTA in it’s first year. The concept was that thinking of a number could lead anywhere. This allowed us to let maths ideas take us to all areas of science, technology and life itself. The show had a children’s audience, which limited the scope a little and so I wrote Think Again, where each show followed a theme. Shows on chairs, flight, doors and time all won accolades and awards.
Since then my life has been in conveying the joy and sheer scope of maths, without ever teaching the subject – that is the job of teachers.
Why this book?
Three years ago I wrote for Dorling Kindersley my second Think of a Number book, which is now in around 30 languages including Japanese, Korean, Greek, Russian and all the European Languages. The book simply demonstrated the many facets of maths, including fractals, chaos theory as well as a great deal on the history of maths.
Mathmagicians is a sister book to TOAN, which shows how we apply maths to measure and evaluate absolutely anything and everything. Once again we follow a historic path, developing towards the present day and trying to include every aspect of measuring, from navigating the Earth, to measuring temperatures in industry. In my research for the book, I could not find a single book for children that had attempted this, since Lancelot Hogben’s Man Must Measure which was produced in 1955. I feel this is a rather sad indictment of how we convey totally the wrong attitude and understanding of mathematics, where the quite dreadful modern curriculum is so strongly centred on numeracy in primary education and statistics in secondary. Even binary numbers, essential for understanding the technology of our digital age, were dropped from the British curriculum in 1996 – It is sheer lunacy.
What’s next?
With so much measuring to talk about in Mathmagicians, we found space for puzzles rather short. Now we realise that a strong book on puzzles with the primary aim of demonstrating their diversity and conveying the sheer scope and breadth of maths, would complete this mathematical trilogy, so hopefully that will be next.
I continue to talk to audiences of all ages on an ever wider range of maths and science subjects and that is both exhilarating and taxing on my time and energy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I also want to write my auto-biography as I feel the way I have achieved in so many areas of communication, and have tackled self learning, could be an encouragement to the next generation. I also want to tell the many fans of my past TV shows that I am still alive and kicking and share with them the joys and pains, the laughs and frustrations that have coloured my incredibly varied life.


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