When a frozen bird can make geeks hot

November 26, 2004

Mathematicians were taught to solve one of their most challenging problems this week: how not to be avoided at parties, writes Anna Fazackerley.

Rob Eastaway, an author of popular maths books, gave advice on how to wow a roomful of strangers at a careers conference organised by the Council for Mathematical Sciences on Wednesday.

Mr Eastaway warned that mathematicians were caught in a double bind on the party circuit: they often suffer from an image problem and many people they meet over a glass of wine will have had "maths anxiety" since their schooldays.

He gave a list of seven tactics to avoid social disgrace - some more dubious than others.

The first tip was to start with an ice-breaker. "Do you know how long it takes to thaw a chicken?" was a chat-up line that had brought a friend of his much success, he said.

Other tactics included trying to be funny - although Mr Eastaway warned that a mathematical joke may not appeal to everyone - and showing other guests how mathematics can be used to answer questions about ordinary topics such as football.

He told the audience that even the most maths-phobic person could be won round. "If they couldn't do their nine times table at school - show them how," he explained.

But Mr Eastaway also offered a fallback plan: "Lie. Don't admit to knowing anything to do with maths."

He added: "This won't come naturally to mathematicians - they like logic and truth."

Mathematician Heather Tewkesbury told The Times Higher that she coped perfectly well with parties, but admitted: "I wouldn't tend to go into a conversation at a party saying I'm a mathematician. I just don't think that particularly helps."

Dr Tewkesbury works for the Smith Institute, an organisation that aims to encourage industry to make use of maths. Often this is an uphill struggle.

She said: "A lot of people have either had a bad experience at school or just haven't been inspired by maths. But you have to show them something unusual that captures their imagination."

The unusual is something Dr Tewkesbury has a talent for. Her PhD involved modelling heat transfer in chocolate, and on joining the Smith Institute she helped to supervise the production of Chewitts sweets.

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