MathsJam 2017

Chalkdust descends upon the UK’s largest pop maths gathering and tells you what you missed


Last weekend, seven us went to a conference centre near Stone in Staffordshire for this year’s MathsJam Gathering. In this blog post, we have collected together our highlights, which we present in approximate chronological order.

The train journey (Scroggs)

Playing Origins of World War I on the train.

The fun started before we even arrived. We spent the majority of the train journey playing Origins of World War I, a game taken from Sid Sackson’s A Gamut of Games. I won, which is unusual, especially when Bolt is one of my opponents.

The train journey was followed by the worst part of the weekend: carrying around 200 copies of Chalkdust over Stone station’s footbridge.

Saturday afternoon (Sean)

This was my first MathsJam, and I was amazed by the huge variety of the talks. Some people spoke about puzzley, gamey maths (which I had expected). Other people ranted or joked about mathematical errata from every day life (I should have expected this) and two people read truly beautiful poetry that genuinely moved me (I really didn’t expect this!). On top of the talks, everybody was lovely and there was an impressive supply of entirely adequate food for lunch. After my initial scepticism, I am already looking forward to next year!

Saturday lunch (Adam)

Saturday afternoon (Alison)

I strongly recommend giving a talk at MathsJam. Even if you have never attended before, you get so much out of presenting something interesting (or ranty) to a group of maths-obsessed people. It’s also the best way to meet other people after your talk: I spoke about Stupid Units and for the rest of the weekend people kept coming up to me with their favourite stupid unit. I now have enough units for five more talks!

If you are thinking of talking at MathsJam, absolutely go for it! They love it when new people speak. If you think your talk contains stuff everyone knows, trust me, it won’t. If you think it might not be mathematical enough (I was worried about this), you will be sent email addresses of people you can ask for guidance. If you are terrified of public speaking, go for it anyway! All the talks are only five minutes so it can be a great way of getting more practice talking to an audience, if that’s what you want. The moral of the story is: give a talk.

Saturday evening (Bolt)

TD and Bolt playing a game from A Gamut of Games.

This was my first MathsJam too and I also had a fantastic time. The Chalkdust delegation ran a table on Saturday evening where we taught people how to play some mathematically interesting games from Sid Sackson’s magnum opus, A Gamut of Games. Some of the other tables included: learning how to make delightful polyhedra using origami, learning how to play Go, a Markov chain game for generating new English words, and mathematical Dungeons & Dragons.

Later Saturday evening (Belgin)

On Saturday evening, after the mathematical Dungeons & Dragons was over, it was time for the MathsJam Jam: now here’s one singalong I couldn’t turn down! It was fun to sing (and laugh) along to rewritten versions of many famous songs. My favourite was Wonderwall, and I’m not even a fan of Oasis. The title was changed to Traversible, the lyrics were now about the postman tour problem, and to me it sounded better than the real thing!

The MathsJam room during the evening activities.

There were plenty of other mathematical versions of popular songs, and they were all hilarious. Popular maths indeed!

Later Saturday evening (TD)

While everyone else was having a little sing-song, I productively spent the evening learning about medieval French poetry with Adam Atkinson. One of the highlights was the following masterpiece:

Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit
Tout gai de Reguennes.

(Hint: Read it aloud in your worst French accent. Spoiler at the bottom of the post.)

Even later Saturday evening (Scroggs)

After the MathsJam Jam, it was already quite late, but there was still plenty of time to try out a variety of the games that people had brought along. Highlights included Hare and Tortoise, Pinguin Party, and Dobble. I finally went to bed at around half past midnight, as Bolt was just starting a game of Settlers of Catan. He assures me that he won.

Sunday breakfast (Belgin)

Weetabix review: Tasteless! You have to add some honey/nuts/fruit/other stuff to make your breakfast taste of anything. And it soaks up milk like a sponge, so you’re left with no milk in your bowl. Maybe I’ll go for Wheat Bisks instead..

Sunday (Adam)

MathsJam weekend is a wonderful combination of everything I enjoy about pop maths. By sheer coincidence, the ethos of the weekend was distilled beautifully into session 2c on Sunday. Let me tell you about it. Six talks; five minutes each. If you exceed your time, Rick Astley plays you off over the speakers.

First, Glen Whitney brings out half a dozen huge 3D shapes that we helped make the night before. How many holes does it have? He whips out some play-doh, and shows that T-shirts are topologically the same as these giant creations.

Pedro in the middle of his trick.

Next, Sue de Pom is dressed up as Ada Lovelace and tells us some stories we don’t know about her (see issue 07). She ends with the sad tale of Ada’s death. No-one knows, but she is half a second from running over time, and Matt Parker deftly kills Rick before he can launch into this wildly inappropriate moment. It’s a win for the hidden tech.

Pedro Freitas shows us a card trick. Somehow cards can do subtraction? We debate how the trick works on the train home. Matthew and John Bibby do an amusing father-and-son two-hander, where only one of them has the slide clicker, and Geoff Morley shows us some classic portrait A4 slides musing over irrational or negative number bases. (Question: do you need a minus sign in a negative base?)

One of the many interesting object left on the table of things to play with (but give back afterwards).

Finally, Adam Atkinson, the aforementioned distributor of fine medieval French poetry, contemplates how large a statue of a hedgehog ought to be if he wants to place it on top of some obscure mountain near Catania. The audience erupts in applause.

This session was funny; it was touching; it was puzzling; it made you want to go and have a play. This spirit, one of earnestness and inclusivity, is not easy to cultivate. It’s extremely difficult to invite people from everywhere, based only on the criterion that they “like maths”, and then get them to bond over an assortment of five-minute talks. Among the delegates you’ll find amateurs who just enjoy playing with puzzles; you’ll find people working in universities; you’ll talk to people who engage with the public professionally. And yet what Katie, Matt and especially Colin have done is to make none of those differences matter. The conference is so full of things to do, ways to get involved, and people to make friends with, that you wonder why other conferences are so bad. Maybe the secret really is Rick Astley.

Sunday afternoon (Alison)

The winning cake.

Just before the final talks, it was time for the competition prizes. First, the prize for the best cake in the MathsJam Bakeoff. This was deservedly awarded to mathematician, crossnumber enthusiast and occasional poet Sam Hartburn.

After this, it was my job to award the prize for the competition competition. The competition was strong, but the winner of the competition competition was Katie Steckles, who beat all the competitions in competition with her competition. Competition competition competition competition competition competition. Competition.

Maybe the highlight of the prize giving was when Matt Parker won the prize for the most entries in a competition. His prize was a £5 voucher to spend on Maths Gear, an excellent shop for mathematical toys and games that just happens to be run by Matt Parker himself.

Another train (Scroggs)

After the end of the talks, it was time to get the train home. See you all next year!



Medieval French poetry (spoiler)

When read in a French accent, the poem sounds exactly like Humpty Dumpty. It is taken from Mots d’Heures, a collection of English nursery rhymes that have been “translated” homophonically into French.

Matthew Scroggs is a PhD student at UCL working on finite and boundary element methods. His website,, is full of maths and now features a video of him completing a level of Pac-Man optimally.

Twitter  @mscroggs    Website    + More articles by Matthew

Sean is a PhD student researching geophysical fluid dynamics at UCL. He studies coastline flows, but so far has been unable to persuade the department to send him on a research trip to the beach.

Twitter  @sean_jamshidi    + More articles by Sean

TD is an undergraduate at UCL who actually understands the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles as Le Chiffre.

Twitter  @televisionduck    + More articles by TD

Belgin is a PhD student at UCL, working on population genetics. When not working, you can usually find Belgin either playing the piano or watching Donald in Mathmagic Land on YouTube (but never both at the same time!).

+ More articles by Belgin

Alison is a medical student at King’s College London.

Twitter  @aaclarke4   Website    + More articles by Alison

Adam is a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London, where he investigates weird, non-Newtonian fluids. If he’s not talking about the maths of chocolate fountains he is probably thinking about fonts, helping Professor Dirichlet answer your personal problems, and/or listening to BBC Radio 2.

Twitter  @Pecnut   Website    + More articles by Adam

Alexander Bolton completed a maths PhD at Imperial College London, applying Bayesian statistics to cyber security problems. He now works as a quantitative analyst at G-Research.

+ More articles by Alexander

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