'You don't need anyone's permission to be a mathematician' - inspiration from Nira Chamberlain

'You don't need anyone's permission to be a mathematician' - inspiration from Nira Chamberlain

Our latest mathematical inspiration is the great Nira Chamberlain, whose recent interview on BBC Four's The Life Scientific podcast left us cheering him on for his sheer determination to study maths and become a professor against the odds.  

Nira is president of the IMA (Institute of Mathematics and its Applications), has double doctorates in maths and has been named one of the UK's top scientists, as well as winning 'most interesting mathematician' in an online vote, which is an accolade that we can fully get behind. 

As a child Nira loved maths, and despite being told by a teacher that he would make a better boxer, he was inspired by childhood hero Mohammed Ali's sheer self confidence and continued studying maths in the face of a complete lack of encouragement from teachers and professors along the way. 

Real world problems

In the interview, Nira talks with delight and excitement about using his mathematical skills to solve real world problems. When he was studying the flow of water in different sections of a river as part of his Geography A-level, he was struck by how interesting it was to use mathematical strategies to figure out solutions to real issues, and continued to do so throughout his career.

So often children (and sometimes even adults!) say, 'why do we need maths when we have calculators and computers to do every sum you can possibly think of?' It's lovely to hear Nira's examples of how human mathematicians, with their creativity, logic and strategy help solve real life problems, not just the ones we find in textbooks. 

He describes his mathematical modelling as a bit like Goldilocks and the three bears - you try the first porridge which is too hot, and the second one which is too cold, until you get to an option which is just right. He tells the story of how he used modelling like this to optimise the running costs of an enormous RAF kitchen, to turn around the operation of a massively expensive MOD aircraft carrier to make it efficient to run, and in his spare time used his mathematician's logic to sweep the boards at ten pin bowling. 

Black heroes of Mathematics

His own personal challenge is to encourage black people into the field of mathematics. His parents told him 'you don't need anyone's permission to be a mathematician', but he acknowledges that it's hard for kids to want to be what they can't see - partly why he was finally encouraged to do a phd himself as he wanted to be a role model for his own son. 

Nira's story is an inspirational one, especially for children who have less than perfect circumstances or who lack role models, or even for those who have no motivation to do maths because they can't see the point. This is a story all about maths in real life, and it's great. 

Nira Chamberlain's interview is available on BBC Sounds


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