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 Colm O’Regan, author, comedian and broadcaster, whose podcast The Function Room invites mathematicians on to tell him something interesting.
What is your podcast about, and when/why did it start?
My podcast aims to be the maths of everything. Whether it’s a newsy topic, or an everyday part of life like your signposts or measuring tape or something way out there like a new type of star. I just want to take a small peek at the numbers behind it.
Sometimes that’s mathematical AF, and sometimes it’s more philosophical – with numbers sprinkled on like hundreds and thousands. It started during the pandemic as a lot of these things do. I did Engineering in University but never used it. As live events shut down I was feeling particularly useless – more so than normal – and wanted to recapture some of the magic of finding those mysterious laws that seemed to – if not always rule – at least reach an uneasy détente with the world around us. Plus during the pandemic there was a lot of bad info, deliberate and accidental misinterpretation of numbers, attempts to blind with science by non-scientists. I wanted to see if I could contribute in any tiny way to helping demystify maths so that more people weren’t afraid of it and more okay with complexity and not knowing and nuance. That was obviously extremely egotistical of me but the good thing about a podcast is that it doesn’t displace anyone else’s voice. It’s there for you to have a listen in your own time and space.
Also insofar as I have any kind of mission, I hate that people might feel something isn’t ‘for them’ just because of how it’s been presented to them before. So if you hated maths in school and it still hurts, maybe just maybe this is an antidote or at worst, a mild pain relief.
Tell us about yourself, and how your podcast is published.
I am a comedian, writer and one-time civil engineering student who was good at exams but not at knowing why he was doing them. I write non-fiction humorous books and novels. My most recent one is called Climate Worrier, the Hypocrite’s Guide to Saving the Planet. Currently the podcast is hosted on the GoLoud Network.
Who is the intended audience for the podcast?
The most important question for any podcast and the one about which I am most unsure. There are a few people I’d like to reach. People studying mathematics and being bogged down and not knowing why they’re studying it because there isn’t time to explain. Parents and family of that cohort. The generally curious. The type of people who like In Our Time but which that it had a bit more ‘Cork Comedian’ on it.
What is a typical episode like?
A typical episode is a very short introduction from me and then interviewing a person much smarter than me in the hope that some of the incredible knowledge they have will lodge in my own brain. It’s a quest from me to find out a bit more on one area, one area at a time – where I get an answer to a question that popped into my brain!
They are typically about 35-55 minutes long. They are released in a pattern that has thus far defied number theorists. That is the worst thing about the podcast, sticking to a schedule. Please be patient. Make some tea and there might be an episode waiting when you get back.
Why should people listen? Why is it different to other mathematical podcasts?
I don’t know much but I’m always curious to know more. These are lively chats with interesting people seeking to find mathematics where you would least suspect it, and sometimes where you’d most expect it, but talked about in an accessible way. Each episode should be consumed as part of a balanced maths diet.
What are some highlights of the podcast so far?
Dara O’Briain waxing lyrical on a fantasy of writing equations on large blackboards, Jocelyn Bell Burnell talking about filling attics with endless rolls of paper as she tracked the elusive pulsars, the anti-metric guerillas described by James Vincent, and Sarah Hart on how the square law makes giants more impossible than fairies.