How did you celebrate Valentine’s Day? This year, Big Ideas leaned into romance with a love song to… mathematics. My First Love: Maths was designed to connect with the enjoyment of the subject and to offer young people an opportunity to meet a professional mathematician.

Maths superstar Nira Chamberlain OBE joined the team as our very special guest speaker for a digital schools day for primary schools in Essex. A partnership between Essex Year of Numbers and RAF Youth STEM, Essex teachers registered more than 10,000 young people to join the Valentine’s Day events.

On signing up, teachers were asked whether their class had met a mathematician before. Only 10 out of 181 answered Yes – 34 Unsure and 137 No. Represented below mathematically in a pie chart (not the other kind of pi, which was discussed during the day).

Maths is on the primary school timetable every day. Here was an opportunity to bring the subject to life – specifically, in the form of Nira Chamberlain.

Nira has 30 years experience as a professional mathematician working in an international engineering firm to solve problems from locating a missing aeroplane to ensuring more women get top jobs. 

His take on maths was deeply rooted in motivation. “A mathematician,” he explained, “isn’t someone who finds maths easy. A mathematician is someone who sees a problem and never ever quits.” 

Essex classes responded to him with hundreds and hundreds of questions. What is your favourite number? (It’s Pi.) What’s your least favourite number? (It’s zero because anything multiplied by zero becomes zero.) Do you like inspiring people to become mathematicians? (Yes!) What’s your proudest moment? (OBE.) What’s the hardest problem you’ve ever solved? (AI Apocalypse.) What’s an AI Apocalypse? (See below.) How do you solve problems? (Break them down.) How do you get to be good at maths? (Practice, practice, practice. And then practice, practice, practice.) And many many more…. 

Most impressive question award has to go to Ms Crees class at Tollesbury school, “Did you refer to Asimov’s law of robotics to help you work out your solution to the AI Apocalypse?” Although Nira didn’t answer this one, he did explain that an AI Apocalypse would be a situation where robots take over the world and make bad decisions. The good news is that Nira looked to nature to develop a mathematical model to fight back creating an anti-AI AI equation.

A huge thank you to Nira for fully entering into the spirit of Valentine’s Day and sharing insights and showing us that maths is everywhere and for everyone.

He introduced us to the “poetry of logic”, told us about the names of mathematicians written around the Eiffel Tower, celebrated maths for saving lives and making friends and yes, for those who missed it, Nira does dream in numbers, but only when he’s got an unsolved problem at bedtime. Final inspiring words (originally from Nira’s dad):

“You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a great mathematician.”

Big Ideas would like to thank RAF Youth STEM and Essex Year of Numbers for making this event possible.