Math For Your Ears

Sometimes you just need to rock out to some sweet sweet mathematics. Photo: key-shine via Flickr Creative Commons.

Sometimes you just need to rock out to some sweet sweet mathematics. Photo: key-shine via Flickr

It is undeniable: podcasts are having a moment. The burgeoning podcast culture being shaped by the Radio Labs, 99% Invisibles, and Freakanomics Radios of the world, has gotten me thinking about some of the particular hardships of adapting pure mathematics to a strictly audio setting. As a subject so rich in notation and abstraction, it always struck me as ill-suited for ears-only consumption. But as it turns out, I was way wrong. So, even though this is a blog on math blogs, I want to take a quick detour into the world of mathematics for your ears.

This week I had occasion to speak to two mathematicians who have successfully navigated two very different realms of audio mathematics: the podcast and the local radio show. According to Samuel Hansen, the director and producer of several great math podcasts including Strongly Connected Components and the kickstarter success-story, Relatively Prime, the key to successful mathematical audio is to tell a story. “The way you do it is through metaphor,” he says, “focus on the things that radio and audio really are good at, which is sparking people’s imaginations.”

Instead of trying to use a podcast to teach heavy technical concepts, Hansen thinks we would perhaps be better served with a little bit of levity and mathematical entertainment, “we need people to think about mathematics not just as a school based or education based activity,” he says, “telling someone a story that is not educational but is interesting is a great way to do that.”

For Beth Malmskog, an assistant professor at Villanova University and former host of “Fort Collins Colorado’s premiere music and call-in math puzzle show,” the key was always to give people a relatable story — no matter the cheese factor. “Even if the story is dorky, you have to give them some kind of objects to hang the whole thing on so they can remember what’s happening,” says Malmskog.

As part of her radio show, Malmskog would offer up mathematical puzzles to her local listeners, who were not necessarily mathematicians. “If you’re going to actually get people to solve or understand some mathematical thing, you almost have to turn it into a puzzle,” she says, “if people haven’t spent their whole lives studying math and they haven’t built little personalities of their own for the objects, you’re just speaking gibberish.”

And, as someone who has on several occasions flung both hands dramatically towards the sky, tossed my head back and shouted “just tensor with Q_p and LIFT the whole thing,” I get it. Whether it makes sense or not, we fill our math with secret relationships and personalties all the time.

One point that Malmskog and Hansen were both quick to make: never assume that your audience is full of mathematicians. Turns out all kinds of people love to read, hear, and learn about math, which is something we can definitely get behind.

To learn about a whole slew of great math podcasts, check out Samuel Hansen’s guest post over at And now that you’ve started thinking about this, what sort of stories have you always wanted to tell about math? And what tricks do you use to explain your cool math ideas to the non-experts?

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One Response to Math For Your Ears

  1. Carol Hutchins says:

    As is well-known, there are lots of videos of math lectures — many at research level — out there. One of my mathematician friends has said to me, more or less, that it is very important that such videos have good sound quality.

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