I just relentlessly want to share with people the things that I find cool. We do MathsJam, which is maths in a pub, and people just bring things to play with. I like it when maths just happens. You’re just getting on with your life, and then suddenly there’s some maths. You’re like, oh, there’s some maths! It’s just fantastic." -- Katie Steckles (from an older interview with Evelyn Lamb)
If you follow the online math world, one of many Brits you'll run into is 'relentlessly' enthusiastic Dr. Katie Steckles, who runs the monthly "Carnival of Math," as just one of her many projects. Definitely check out her homepage (listed below) to see all the mathy things she is up to! But somehow, I got her to sit still long enough to tell us a little bit more about her math world.
1) Please tell us whatever is pertinent in your background that brought you to mathematics and blogging? When did you know you wished to be a mathematician, and what is your current professional position?
I chose my subject to study at A-level (age 16-18) because I was thinking about going into medicine, but having studied maths at that level I found it really interesting, so I changed my plans to do a degree in maths, and then went on to a PhD. I’ve always found I was good at it, and I love solving puzzles and working things out so it makes sense as a subject for me. I now work full-time as a freelance maths speaker, doing talks in schools and at science festivals, as well as YouTube videos, podcasts, and occasional other outreach projects. I find that blogging works well alongside this, as it means I can try out ways of explaining things, and research topics that I can then use for other things. It also means I feel like I’m still up-to-date with the latest goings-on in maths research.
2) You're involved in SO MANY different things I'll let you list all the places you'd want readers to look for you or your work (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, other websites/homepages, Google+....)?
I’m on Twitter as @stecks, and I blog at aperiodical.com. I have a YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/st3cks, although it doesn’t have much on it -- most of my videos are on the Numberphile channel (for now -- I’m working on some more!). I have a homepage at katiesteckles.co.uk that lists all the stuff I’m doing.
3) At one time you were involved with "math busking" (taking math to the streets for any-and-all interested folks) in Britain, which always sounded like a lot of fun, and something we don't do in the U.S. But I haven't heard much about it lately; is it still happening (and if not why not)? Are you involved? Anything else you care to say about how fun, effective, or difficult it is to do?
The Maths Busking project is still going on, and they’ve trained a large team of people to do it - although I do still occasionally do events with them, and it’s a real challenge talking to people one-on-one, or in small groups, or even with larger crowds because you have to keep their attention and be engaging or else they’ll walk away. We’ve done it on the street, at science festivals, and as cabaret entertainment at dinner events. Buskers, like maths teachers, often face a disinterested or occasionally hostile audience, and many of the techniques they employ can be useful in finding ways to get maths across. It’s about choosing topics carefully and keeping things engaging, and leaving with a positive message. It also stemmed from the idea of things which people hear and want to repeat or show others, like a joke or a simple trick, and maths people often share such things with each other at conferences and so on. Maths Busking is a great way to share little nuggets of maths that you hope people will pass on to others too.
4) I'm always struck by the number of excellent math communicators heralding from Britain (out-of-proportion to the nation's size) -- even my favorite U.S. math writer, Keith Devlin, is originally British! Just curious if you see any reason why the British education system produces so many good math writers/lecturers? (and I ask that, in part, because I read Brits complaining about their math education almost as much as Americans complain about theirs!)
I suspect that people complaining about their childhood maths teacher is a universal thing, although possibly not always justified -- it’s often the case that kids go into maths lessons expecting it to be difficult or boring, because of what the general attitude to maths is in society, and that can set you up to fail -- and it happens everywhere. I think the UK does well partly because we have a really rich maths research community and lots of cool people actively doing maths; I think there’s also a strong community of outreach in the UK compared to other countries, not just in maths but across science, and there’s a lot more science programming on TV at a reasonable level, good science magazines and lots of celebrities openly interested in science, so there’s a real culture of public engagement with science and maths. Maybe this means more people do well at writing and talking about maths, because of the large number of good communicators.
[Listen up America; WE need MORE of this!]
5) What are some of your own favorite math reads that you'd recommend to other math fans (books or blogs or anything else)?
I have a whole shelf of maths books (and hardly enough time to read them) - although some of my favourite writers are Ian Stewart, Alex Bellos, Simon Singh (whose books I’ve read since I was a kid) and Richard Elwes -- I also like Jordan Ellenberg’s latest book, and I should probably mention Matt Parker’s book which is excellent (although I did help with some of his proof-reading and fact-checking, and I get mentioned in the acknowledgements, so that sort of doesn’t count).
6) As a female in a still male-dominated field, did you meet any major barriers along your pathway to mathematics? From your experience, do you have any 'words-of-wisdom' or recommendations for other females starting out on a mathematics journey?
I don’t think I’ve ever felt like being female has been a disadvantage, although I do wonder if anything would have been different if I were male -- I sometimes found myself questioning whether I was good enough to be doing maths research, in a way that I rarely saw my male colleagues openly doing, although in private conversations it turns out everyone thinks that at least some of the time. I understand that ‘impostor syndrome’ is an issue that’s known to disproportionately affect females, and I imagine it stems partly from the way women and men are taught is the correct way to behave -- to be polite and modest, or to be manly and self-confident, both of which can be harmful if taken too seriously. I volunteer with a local group in Manchester, called Manchester Girl Geeks, and we try to provide an environment for people who want to be geeky and play with maths and computers, especially if they feel less free to do that because they’re female (we’ve had attendees who go to all-girls schools which don’t offer computer science as a subject option, and helped them find external tutors and friends to share their hobby with). It’s definitely better now than it’s been in the past, but there’s still a way to go before everyone stops seeing maths, and computer science especially, as being ‘for boys’. I’d say that since I don’t have much direct experience of being disadvantaged by my gender (I have been lucky to have parents who encouraged me whatever I wanted to do, and an older brother into computers as a major role model), I don’t have any particularly good advice for women who want to go into it other than to follow what you love and don’t let anyone sway you from it if it’s what you want to do. And, enjoy the shorter queues for the bathroom in your department :)
7) Your popular "Aperiodical" blog has been around for awhile now, covering a very wide range of topics, and always seems a fun group of folks to work with. Are there any 'behind-the-scenes' stories from putting out such a blog over several years that readers might find funny or entertaining?
It’s great working with other bloggers, as it really takes the pressure off you for feeling like you need to constantly be producing content; it also means we can proof-read and check each other’s work. I’m grateful to Christian for being a massive pedant and correcting all our typesetting gaffes, and to Peter for always being keen to have well-sourced facts and driving that. I’m not sure what my main contribution is -- maybe it’s ideas, since I am such a magpie for fun interesting bits of maths, but we all bring things along that we want to write about, and then it’s a toss-up as to who has enough free time to make it happen. We’ve done some pieces that we’ve all worked on together, and plenty of individual stuff, but it always really feels like a collaboration and I’m glad people enjoy it. Since we recently set up a Slack channel to keep in closer touch (previously we had increasingly irregular Skype chats, but we’re all doing this in our spare time and as we’re all busier it’s more difficult to find time when we’re all free, so Slack works well), there’s often times when we all come in at the same time to say ‘did you see this news’, so we’re all keeping an eye out and hopefully keeping on top of the latest maths gossip. We also encourage each other to write our own feature pieces, plus I keep a regular Puzzlebomb schedule, and supervise the Carnival of Maths there, so there’s always something going on.
8) Anything else you'd want to pass along to a captive audience of math enthusiasts?
If you enjoy it, keep doing it, and share it with others -- show someone else your favourite maths trick/puzzle/joke/theorem, and spread the love!
Thanks Katie for fleshing out who you are a bit more for all of us, and for contributing so much to the online world of our favorite (or, as you say, favourite) subject!
If by some slim chance you're a reader unfamiliar with Dr. Steckles' work be sure to check out several of the above links.