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Relatively Prime Recap: Season 2, Episode 3: Mathematistan


I have to say, I chuckled: the week Relatively Prime hits ‘noteworthy’ on iTunes is the week Samuel discusses using maths to do well in popularity contests. Coincidence? I think not.

To me, episode 3 of the second series represents something of a return to form for one of the top half-dozen maths podcasts around; whether this is because I’m a fan of political maths or because it’s genuinely really good is a) difficult to tell because I’m biased and b) a false dichotomy.

It’s a piece in four acts this week, beginning with Ronald Merritt, a mathematical historian in Alabama. Rarely is the question asked, is our (or America’s) Presidents learning maths (or math) — except, of course, by Ronald and by Samuel, who explore which residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are likely to have known or cared that their address was a square number. (Polk and Garfield, most likely. Maybe Carter. Dubya, of course, would have asked whether it was pronounced 16 brazillion.)

Second up, it’s Della Dumbaugh to look at how politics has changed maths, focussing on the exodus of mathematicians from Nazi Germany and how researchers navigated the approved maths of Mao’s China.

As with all good plays, Act 3 is where things go from interesting to fascinating. Here, Samuel interviews Keith Devlin about his work for the spooks and his time being tracked by West German intelligence, who seem to have been just about as competent as the guys in Deutschland ’83.

And in Act 4, politicians get it with both barrels. Hooray ((Neither the author nor The Aperiodical approves of assassinating politicians unless supported by rigorous game theoretical justification. As for Samuel, who knows?))! Specifically, the kind of politician who redraws boundaries to his or her party’s own advantage: the practice of gerrymandering. An excellent segment, featuring several different voices (David Austin, Jonathan Hodge, Jonathan Mattingly and Christy Vaughn), who use a variety of techniques, geometrical and probabilistic, to give an idea of whether a district has been designed for partisan reasons. I’d have liked only two things to have been different: first, I’d have loved a little bit about the history of the word ‘gerrymander‘ and, second, I wish it had reached my ears while I was running down a hill rather than up one; the latter is not entirely Samuel’s fault, though.

A cracking episode, in my opinion: informative, genuinely thought-provoking and generally math[s]ariffic. I reckon it’s Diegetic Plots, Chapter 1 up next: I am resisting the temptation to look up what they are before I hear the podcast.

More information

Listen to Relatively Prime: Mathematistan at While you’re there, catch up on Season 1.

Colin was given early access to Season 2 of Relatively Prime, in return for writing reviews of each episode. Furthermore, Samuel is Aperiodipal numero uno and most of us chipped some money into the Relatively Prime Kickstarter, too. Just so you know.

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