In this series of posts, we’ll be featuring mathematical podcasts from all over the internet, by speaking to the creators of the podcast and asking them about what they do.
We spoke to Evelyn Lamb and Kevin Knudson, who interview mathematicians for their podcast, My Favorite Theorem.
What is your podcast about, and when/why did it start?
As the name suggests, we talk with mathematicians about theorems! Of course, the podcast is also about who those mathematicians are as people, the interesting things that they do, and how they think about math. One of our favorite parts of the show is that we ask mathematicians to “pair” their theorems with something, like a food and wine pairing. The pairings have been everything from food and drink to music and literature and sports, so we leave it wide open. Getting mathematicians to talk a bit impressionistically about why something from everyday life reminds them of this bit of math is really fun.
Kevin had the idea in early 2017 to have a podcast focused on talking with mathematicians about theorems, and he invited Evelyn on. (They had interacted a bit in the math Twitter/blog world.) Evelyn didn’t want to sign on initially and suggested some other people he should talk to, but luckily he didn’t. As she thought about the idea more, she got more enthusiastic, and when she came up with the idea for theorem pairings, she really wanted to do it. We recorded our first episode March 23 (Emmy Noether’s birthday, so it’s easy to remember) and recorded a few more before our launch in July of that year.
How is your podcast published?
We are entirely independent. Kevin hosts the episodes (including audio, show notes, and transcripts) on his website, and we have Twitter and Facebook pages. Evelyn writes blog posts on her Scientific American blog, Roots of Unity, about each episode to get them a little more exposure from that direction. We are fortunate that we don’t need the podcast to be a money-making venture, at least right now, and we relish the freedom to set our own schedule, talk with exactly the guests we want in exactly the way we want to, and not read Casper or HelloFresh ads. (Not sure if those are universal references, but in the US it seems like every podcast is sponsored by mattresses and meal delivery kits.) Although we do not earn money from the podcast, it has definitely fed into Evelyn’s career in other ways. (She is a freelancer, and Kevin has a steady paycheck from an academic job.)
Who do you hope will listen to your podcast?
We’d like to think the episodes are entertaining for a broad audience regardless of math background, but realistically speaking, it seems like math-interested undergraduates and math graduate students/faculty make up most of our audience. The accessibility level varies a bit from episode to episode because our guests all want to talk about something different, and that’s something that we love about the podcast, but it also makes it a bit difficult to say exactly who the podcast is for. (Another reason we love being independent!)
What is a typical episode like?
We’ve got a short intro and usually get to introducing our guest pretty quickly. They tell us a little bit about themselves and then their favorite theorem. We try to ask somewhat relevant questions about the theorem and their relationship to it, and then we ask them for a pairing. At the end we let them plug anything they have to plug and then say bye. Evelyn thinks podcasts can have a tendency to go too long, so we try to keep them on the shorter side. Towards the beginning, they were usually 15-20 minutes. They’ve grown a bit since then, and now our average length is probably around 30 minutes.
Why should people listen to My Favorite Theorem?
We think you should listen if you want to hear a diverse lineup of mathematicians talking about a diverse range of specific topics in a fairly casual way. We don’t just mean race and gender diversity, though those are important. We have mathematicians who work in a variety of fields at a variety of institutions with a variety of mathematical life stories behind them. We do not think of it as an educational podcast per se, which may be a bit different from some other math podcasts. We think the audio format and the situations in which people tend to listen to podcasts (commuting, cooking, cleaning, etc.) don’t lend themselves to that goal. Instead, we hope you feel like you’ve eavesdropped on an interesting and entertaining conversation about math and can find out more about the topic later if it piques your interest.
What are some highlights of the podcast so far?
Well of course, we loved having the one and only Katie Steckles on the show! There’s a bit of a recency bias when we think about highlights, so we’ll just lean in to that. (Otherwise, we’d end up with a list of 51 favorite episodes!) The last two we published were a lot of fun. Carina Curto talked about linear algebra, and aBa Mbirika talked about the theorem that made him decide to be a mathematician.
Last year at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, we recorded short “flash favorite” theorems from 16 different mathematicians, who each talked about their favorite theorem for a couple minutes. It seems like our listeners really enjoyed the change of pace.
A couple of our early episodes that were really great for really different reasons were our episodes with Eriko Hironaka and Henry Fowler. Hironaka’s theorem is pretty technical, but the way she talked about its importance in her life felt incredibly relatable. Fowler talked about the Pythagorean theorem, perhaps the only theorem a majority of US-educated adults know the name of, and how it connected to his Navajo heritage. I think those two episodes, which happened to be published back to back, highlight what an interesting mix of different mathematicians and theorems we have on the show.
What exciting plans do you have for the future?
For the most part, we’re just kind of trucking along. This is a side project for both of us, and we’re pretty happy with how it’s going, and so plan on keeping on with that. We’ve got some nice guests lined up for the next few months and hope our listeners have as much fun listening as we did recording the episodes.