Relatively Prime: stories from the mathematical domain

Samuel Hansen, the mind behind the mathematical podcasts Combinations and Permutations and Strongly Connected Components from ACMEScience and co-host of the Math/Maths podcast with Peter Rowlett, has a plan. He wants to create a new series of podcasts, Relatively Prime, featuring stories from the world of mathematics as told by the protagonists themselves.


Samuel promises to tell the weird and unexpected stories in this series, from slime mould recreating the Tokyo subway network to the good old fashioned fights between Newton and Leibniz. He told us about two of his favourite stories: how crickets led us to a better understanding of Kevin Bacon...

"In the late 90s Duncan Watts was at Cornell University studying under Steven Strogatz and was having a lot of problems figuring out what to write his dissertation on, he had tried a few problems already and none had stuck. So Strogatz suggested that Watts help him with some of his work with coupled oscillator problems, specifically as it applied to cricket chirp synchronization. One day they were in a field trying to get a handle on how crickets start to sync, if it is one that starts it or multiple starting points that start to come together like unmatched metronomes on a moving plank. Watts started to think of how the crickets were connected (who could hear whom) and how the connections in this system could change the behavoir of the crickets. Then all of a sudden he told Strogatz about the common idea that everyone is only 6 handshakes away from everyone else. It was only a short time after that that they published the first mathematical model of a small world social network. Fireflies to the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon in only one connection."

and Tim Gower's Polymath project...

"Tim Gowers asked one of the most intriguing questions ever on his blog, can people do a massively collaborative mathematical proof. He then posed a question called the Density Hales Jewett problem and asked his readers to try to prove it collaboratively in the comments section of the blog post. 2 weeks later somewhere around 39 people had worked together to get an even deeper result than the one Gowers had originally posed and the experiment was a success. They ended up publishing a paper under the name DHJ Polymath."

But to tell these stories Samuel needs your help. He says he wants to approach the series as a story teller, not as an educator. And for this reason it is important that he interviews the protagonists of the stories face to face so that he can get the inside story. He also wants to create a series that anyone will enjoy regardless of how they feel about maths. "We seem to have gotten to a point that it is cooler to not be able to do mathematics and it is my belief that this is mostly down to a matter of perception," he says. Samuel hopes to change those perceptions by telling fascinating stories in a way that is a pleasure to listen to: "I want to layer in voices and sound and music and make Relatively Prime a joy to listen to no matter your feelings about mathematics."

So if you are intrigued by Samuel's tales from mathematics then you can support the project by visiting his Kickstarter page.

And you can read more about crickets, Kevin Bacon and the science of sync in Steven Strogatz's book, Sync: the emerging science of spontaneous order, reviewed on Plus. And you can join the forces of the Polymath at The polymath blog.