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Podcasting About: Infinitely Irrational

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 Nathalie Vega-Rhodes, host of the Infinitely Irrational podcast.

What is your podcast about, and why did you start making it? 

Up until recently, I taught math at the college level, from developmental math through Calculus. But that wasn’t where I started. As a student, I was a theatre major with a passion for good stories. When I changed my major to math, I discovered that the mathematics field is filled with figures and stories that would make Shakespeare (or George R.R. Martin, anyway) jealous. There are cunning witches, golden gods, ruthless murderers, epic duels, windswept romances, and so much more.

When I started teaching, it wasn’t long before I started sharing some of these stories with my students. Not only did my students get more interested in the math itself, the stories had the unintended benefit of making my students more open with me and more willing to go out of their comfort zones (especially with the more challenging word problems!). This planted the seeds for the Infinitely Irrational podcast. I knew these were good stories, but I needed to dig in deeper to get all the facts. These histories are woven with myth and intrigue and should be shared with the world!

Who is the intended audience for the podcast? 

Anyone! While math aficionados and history buffs alike will enjoy learning about the history of mathematicians and how some of the concepts came into existence, anyone who loves stories will enjoy the podcast. 

When I asked people to think back to their college math class, so many of them described a blackboard, or several, filled with intimidating equations. Or a dust-covered professor droning on about how to solve for x. Some mentioned classmates frantically scribbling or struggling to stay awake, no matter how much coffee they’re drinking along with a feeling of despair that they’d never “get it” because they had no idea what was being discussed.

When I started college as a theatre major, this was my experience in a math class. And as a math professor, I heard it over and over again: “Math is for ‘smart’ people.” “I’ll never get it. I’m not a ‘math person’.” “Why do I have to learn this?” “Thank goodness! This is my LAST math class!” In fact, I’ve had many of these same thoughts myself over time. What changed? I discovered that there is more to math than solving equations: the men and women behind the math have some fascinating stories. 

Learning their stories made math more accessible. I believe that math should be accessible to as many people as possible; it isn’t something that only a few privileged people can understand. But since so many people incorrectly believe this to be fact, how can I both share my love for and pique interest in math? I hope to inspire curiosity and maybe be the catalyst in realizing that mathematics can be interesting and fun – it turns out that dust-covered math professor isn’t boring; he’s Indiana Jones. 

What is a typical episode like?

Since the podcast’s inception, I share each mathematician’s in a trilogy (though Cardano was a special case and required four episodes to adequately summarize his drama-filled life). Episodes range from 20-40 minutes, but I try to keep them around 30 minutes. Most episodes have an Easter egg, but I’ll leave that to the listener to discover.

Why should people listen to Infinitely Irrational?

Everyone loves a good story and it’s a bonus if you learn something! When I started looking for math podcasts, I found that most of them focused around either teaching specific concepts such as “how to factor” or were high-level discussions of mathematical concepts, for a more advanced audience but I wanted to learn more about the people behind the math. I also wanted to make math more accessible to everyone, starting with my students, while having fun along the way. 

What are some highlights of the podcast so far?

Highlights for me have been realizing how truly interconnected everything is. With Fermat’s Last Theorem, it was really cool to talk about how excited mathematicians were to break it open, even just a little bit. Seeing the influence that one mathematician can have on so many other people – how Erdös was able to make connections with so many mathematicians and be beloved by all – is just awe-inspiring!

It’s fascinating to me to learn about concepts first coming into being, such as probability, which has changed our whole life, simply by virtue of someone asking a question. Every time someone asks me which is my favorite mathematician from the podcast, I start off with one and realize soon enough that I’ve mentioned everyone we’ve covered.

But one of my favorite trilogies was my collaboration with Ben Orlin of Math with Bad Drawings. In his recent book Change is the Only Constant: The Wisdom of Calculus in a Madcap World, he shares some of the history and controversy about the origins of calculus. He collaborated with me on a trilogy where we talk about Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz and it truly was one of the most fun experiences. The first episode of this trilogy can be found on all the podcast players.

What exciting plans do you have for the future? 

By listener request, I am working on women mathematicians for the next few episodes. I’m currently finishing up Mary Fairfax Somerville but it’s taking longer than I’d like. Since changing careers in mid-2020, it has been challenging to dedicate the time needed to do justice to these wonderful mathematicians with the current format, but I’m hopeful that I will be able to get some new episodes out soon!

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