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Richard Elwes – Four Way Interview

Richard Elwes is a writer, teacher and researcher in Mathematics and a visiting fellow at the University of Leeds. Dr Elwes is passionate about the public understanding of maths, which he promotes at talks and on the radio. His more recent book is Maths 1001.
Why maths?
I don’t know anything else!
I have always enjoyed the subject, and the more I have studied, the more I have realised how incredibly deep it goes, and just how much there is to know. At the same time, I am aware of the gulf between how most people see maths (a horrendous mix of tedious equations and incomprehensible jargon), and how I see it, which is as a whole other world, packed full of amazingly cool, interlocking ideas. So, as well as enjoying studying maths myself, I suppose I have a drive to try to close this gap.
Why this book?
There are two answers, both true.
The first is that I don’t think a book like this has ever been attempted before. Of course, there are plenty of excellent books discussing various mathematical topics for a general audience. But I don’t believe any have tried to be as comprehensive as this. It’s ambitious, there’s no doubt about it, and I was excited by the challenge.
At the same time, there seems to be a gap between ‘popular’ books on one hand, which take a completely equation-free, discursive approach to a mathematical subject, and ’technical’ volumes or textbooks on the other, which go fully into all the gory details. My book treads a middle path. I didn’t want to sex things up too much, I wanted the mathematics to speak for itself, and for the book to work as a reference volume. At the same time, some of the material is undoubtedly difficult and unfamiliar, and people need a way in, to understand what fundamental questions are being addressed. I wanted it to be enjoyable to read, and for people genuinely to learn from it. In some ways, I suppose I wanted to write the book that I would like to have read aged 17.
The second answer is… someone offered me money to write it.
What’s next?
I’m pleased to say that I have a couple of projects in the pipeline. In Spring 2011 I have a book called “How to build a brain (and 34 other really interesting uses of mathematics)” coming out, which has been a fun one to write. It covers some of the same areas as Mathematics 1001, but in a much more light-hearted and less technical style. Perhaps you could guess that from the title.
There are other things in the works too… but it is probably still too early to go into details. I can say that I am looking forward to working on them though!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Maths 1001 is my first book, and it’s just come out. I’m quite excited about that, to be honest!
Otherwise, I find that the internet makes a wonderful blackboard, these days. There are so many people out there talking about maths, from primary school teachers discussing games kids can play to start to enjoy numbers, right up to Fields medallists presenting their latest research. I follow several mathematical and scientific blogs (I’ve got my own too, may I plug it? Thank you!). It is just fun to be a part of that huge conversation.
In terms of mathematics itself, I have been thinking about recent work by the logician Harvey Friedman, which I find very exciting. It’s a sort of sequel to Kurt Gödel’s famous work. I think it will turn out to be important. I am getting quite interested in ideas from logic to do with provability, computability, and randomness, and how they relate. My background is not in exactly this type of logic, but I do find it fascinating.


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