Maths Made Easy
What are your chances of surviving Russian Roulette? Or splitting the bill in a restaurant without tears? Lawrence Potter's new book makes sums as easy as 1,2,3. He talks to Emily Bearn
Lawrence Potter is nuts about maths.
For bedtime reading, he pores over maths examination papers; and when he's bored, he doodles things like this: (4 x 2 + 2x = 1; 5 x 2 + 4x = 7; 6 x 2 + 2x = 11). He can talk lyrically about algebra and long multiplication, and after we'd spoken for an hour on the telephone he called me straight back to expand on something he'd said about fractions.
His first book, Mathematics Minus Fear: All you ever wanted to know about maths but were too afraid to ask promises to make the subject so gloriously do-able that algebra and long division will seem like 'a kind of therapy'. The BBC is already plotting a spin-off television series.
The interest has caught Potter, 30, somewhat unawares: he is currently working a two-year stint for VSO in Rwanda, teaching maths in a village school with no access to the internet. I finally tracked him down on a crackly Rwandan mobile.
'For some reason, mathematics is still deemed deeply unfashionable - and it's high time that changed,' he explains cheerfully. 'We all need maths every day, and it's a handicap if you can't do it. So I'm inviting people to look at the subject in a different way. I'm trying to show that it's possible for anyone to grasp it - and even, possibly, to enjoy it.'
Potter - who sounds affable and indefatigably enthusiastic - clearly enjoys it more than most. The son of two doctors from Canterbury, he read classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, then trained as a maths teacher; before heading to Rwanda (where he says the syllabus is 'more demanding' than in Britain), he taught in a secondary school in Brixton.
He says that if you follow his book you will be equipped to cope with all manner of ghastly challenges, such as splitting a restaurant bill, filling in a tax return, or understanding the compound interest on your bank statement. You will also be able to calculate your chances of survival when playing Russian roulette, win at Perudo and pronounce '324' in Tibetan ('Gsum-bryga gnyis-bcu rtsa bzhi').
The hard lessons of calculus and Euclid are here, yet this is a far cry from the average school text book. It is eloquently written, cajoling the reader along by affording him constant digressions. There is a section on how the ancient Egyptians wrestled with equations; and advice on how to play a roulette wheel. (Don't.) A section on borrowing and carrying is explained with reference to The Ground of Artes, a mathematics book written in 1543. There's a 13-page appendix on how to solve Sudoku and a chapter on the Law of Large Numbers which offers useful tips on backing the right horses.
Some readers, however, may blanche at the contents page: the book romps through all the curriculum monsters, with chapters such as 'Adding Fractions on Paper', 'Long Division Explained', and 'What is the (Decimal) Point'. But the beauty, says Potter, is that it's all so simple.
'Long multiplication has been very misunderstood,' he says, in the tone in which one might discuss an errant friend. 'Let's take a sum such as 23 x 12. That would make most people go blank. But then think about it as the sum of (20 x 12) and (3 x 12); and it's immediately simplified. Most things are more logical than they seem.'
They may be, but Potter's sums get a lot harder. Take, for example, the section on percentages: 'To find the initial price of an item, given its price, E, after a percentage increase of y %, you divide E by (100 + y) and multiply by 100 '
Potter says that the book is intended for all who were terrified by mathematics at school - 'the silent ones in the classroom', whose voices were 'swallowed by self-doubt'. Does he believe the previous extract is something the average reader could follow without gulping? 'Er, possibly not,' he concedes. 'But that is one of the harder parts, and most of the book is more accessible. Maths is a logic, and if you add to it, step by step, you can go as far as you like.'
The bad news, however, is that there is no way of skirting the multiplication tables. Potter advises every reader to learn them by heart. In the age of the calculator, does he really believe all this is going to catch on? 'Of course,' he says adamantly. 'Maths is like a crossword - it panders to man's innate desire to solve things.' In Potter (who has blue eyes, curly hair, and describes himself as 'looking a bit like Elijah Wood') that desire is fierce. He says that when he is not teaching, or roaring around Rwanda on his mountain bike, he will as likely as not be scouring old mathematics examination papers in search of new brain-teasers.
'Maths can be therapeutic, because it concentrates the mind,' he says. 'And when you're teaching there is nothing more stimulating than seeing a class of people struggling with the same problem - you can almost hear their brains collectively ticking.'
Mathematics Minus Fear was the brainchild of Catheryn Kilgarriff, who has been running the Marion Boyars publishing house since her mother, its founder, died in 1999. The idea came to her after she had spent days on end gazing, bewildered, at the company spreadsheets. Then Lynne Truss wrote a book on punctuation for a rival publisher, and Kilgarriff woke up. 'When Eats, Shoots & Leaves came out, I suddenly realised that there is only one thing that makes people more scared than the apostrophe,' she says, 'and that's mathematics.'
Potter has certainly made the subject more readable, if not any easier. But whether mathematics will prove as reliable a money-spinner as punctuation is a conundrum even he hasn't yet solved.