My Math Autobiography

In order to understand my Mathematical story, it is necessary to first zoom out and consider my family. My Mum’s Dad is a biologist who discovered RNA. My Dad’s Dad was a principal and Professor of Education at the University of Oxford. (Note that neither of my grandmothers had prominent careers despite both being amazing and talented people). My Mum is a scientist, who put the first MRI scanner in a British hospital. My Dad almost got a PHD in Math, before dropping out to become the Director of Finance for the Department of Education. My parents met playing violin together at the University of Cambridge. My two brothers and I also all studied at Cambridge. I say this all at the beginning to emphasize how I have stood on the shoulders of giants – my family’s love of education and of Math put me in an amazing position to be good at and enjoy learning Math. I am so grateful.

My grandparents

A good example – the day after writing this I awoke to 63 messages from my family Whatsapp thread, brothers and father excitedly debating the Math of waterfalls. This is weird and amazing, and I am lucky.

Three brothers. Which one is me?



Chapter 1: 0 – 11 years

I remember measuring the temperature and rainfall each day for a month, and, with the help of my Dad, drawing the data as a graph. The sense of wonder as the table of numbers, ugly and hard to read, unveiled itself as a diagram. Math at school seemed to be about memorization – two students would stand at the front of the class and compete to see who could answer mental math questions fastest. I was good at it, and so therefore I enjoyed it. A positive feedback loop.



Chapter 2: 11- 18 years

My dad appears many times in my Math autobiography. Explaining how there was an infinite sum (1/2 – 1/3 + 1/4 – 1/5 + …) that could equal whatever number you wanted it to, depending on how you arranged the numbers. What nonsense. 10 years later at university I learnt why this was true. Instantly answering trigonometry problems that I was completely stuck on. Reading popular Math books on holiday. I wonder now why I am inspired by my father more than my mother even though she is a scientist – have I internalized the stereotype that Math is a masculine pursuit?

At school most teachers were boring, and the Math was beige. One teacher, Mr Baker, ignored the syllabus and taught us things that were supposed to be too difficult for us. I loved his infectious energy and his bravery in tackling challenging ideas. All my Math teachers were the same race and class as me, and I felt completely confident in the classroom.

During these years Math was fine, but the things I really loved were Music and Art. Many hours spent after school in the art studios painting with friends, or playing in jazz bands.

Portraits of my father. (The canvas on the left is three-dimensional, and required lots of trigonometry to build.)


Chapter 3: 18 – 23

I obsessively loved Architecture, and went to a university in London to study how to design spaces – the perfect balance between the Arts and the Sciences. I couldn’t just study Math – that would have meant I was just copying my Dad. I lastd three months – not mature enough to live alone, and surprising myself by missing the clarity of Mathematical thinking too much. I worked on a farm in remote Northern Norway for two months, studying the Math entrance exam in the evenings to get into university for Math.

Off to university. Papa is proud and supportive.

I devoured Math at University – it blossomed from a one-dimensional subject at school to this fascinating forest of ideas that you could explore and struggle with. I loved topology – which is like geometry but where everything is made of squishy bendy material.

I moved to Cambridge to study for a Masters. I went mostly because Cambridge had an impressive reputation, which is not a good reason. This was the first time I properly found Math difficult. The professors seemed oddly proud of the reputation that this was the hardest course in the world. In two of the six courses I just gave up and didn’t go to the final exam (and so scored 0%). It was a real challenge to my identity as a Mathematician, and I am not proud of how I reacted. I wouldn’t have passed the course without the help of a group of four friends – we spent all our time together, alternating between messing about as students and thinking furiously about Math. One of those friends was to become my girlfriend, and was the reason I moved to the US.

A holiday spent preparing for summer exams. Without these three I would not have passed the course.

I had a few experiences of teaching Math to children that made me realize how fun and intellectually satisfying it was. One in a local high school where a girl quizzically looked at me and said ‘Sir, are you posh?”. The other for a summer in Johannesburg, South Africa, where far more experienced and superior teachers treated me with respect just because I was white. I was awful at teaching, but wanted to get better.



Chapter 4: 23 – Present

I learnt to teach in a huge school in the East of England, where half the students were Pakistani-British. These students would study at school during the day and then study Islam at the Mosque in the evenings. I tried to teach young children the Math that I had learnt at university – convinced that anyone can learn high-level Math. I failed miserably – not because the students couldn’t do it, but because I wasn’t supporting them in the right way.

My first three years of teaching were in East London. In that time only one student that I taught was White-British, but we teachers never spoke about race – it was not deemed relevant. Is this because race is less important in Britain, or because we were blind to reality? Most teachers were liberal idealistic well-educated white people who wanted to change the world. Gradually I learnt that learning to understand the students and their motivation and interests was far more important than anything I could teach them.


My most successful class – farewell party before I left for Chicago.

Last year I taught Geometry and Pre-Calculus at Payton. I had never met students who are so focused on their future success – something which is both good and bad.

An art teacher should still make Art. A music teacher should still play and compose Music. As a Math teacher I still need to do Math myself – I meet in the evenings with friends or colleagues to tinker with problems or spend time in holidays going to conferences to push myself.

I have spent the summer reading and writing about this course we are about to do together. I am a bit nervous but so excited, and cannot wait to see what you achieve!



Chapter 5: The Future?

I am really excited to think about how different people in different cultural contexts think about and do Math. Maybe I will continue to travel to new countries to teach? Maybe I will go back to university and try to put into practice all the things I tell my students to do when learning?