Games & Humor

Math Buskers Juggle Numbers On English Streets

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On the streets of Manchester, England, a group is working the crowds alongside jugglers, human statues and troubadours. They're math buskers; mathematicians with an arsenal of tricks to entertain and enlighten people who happen to be passing by. Host Liane Hansen speaks to Sara Santos, a math educator at the Royal Institution in London, about math busking.


On the streets of London, England, a unique group of people is working the crowds alongside jugglers, human statues and troubadours. They're math buskers - mathematicians - with an arsenal of tricks to entertain and enlighten people who happen to be passing by.

Sara Santos is a fellow at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. She's one of the math buskers and she's on the phone. Hi, Sara.

Ms. SARA SANTOS (Fellow, Royal Institution of Great Britain): Hello, Liane.

HANSEN: You have to explain the term. What's a math busker?

Ms. SANTOS: A math busker uses techniques that buskers use to engage a crowd. A busker is a street performer that makes a living from entertaining people. So, he draws people's attention, people that are just busy getting on with their lives, they stop to watch the show and they got entertained to the point of feeling that they should pay this guy.

Math buskers use the same techniques to engage people that are indifferent to mathematics.

HANSEN: Briefly, then, describe how a performance works.

Ms. SANTOS: Our shows includes mathematical mind-reading, a 20 pound game against a busker and topological games, such as tying up people together or wearing your waistcoat, being handcuffed and turning the waistcoat inside out. So, all the acts rely on mathematics.

HANSEN: And that's not just like a magic trick that you're doing there with the vest and the handcuffs. There's a mathematical principle behind it.

Ms. SANTOS: Yes, absolutely. Math has to be the source of the entertainment. So, we don't do slight of hand and we don't do any other tricky things behind it. The reason why the shows work and why the shows are surprising and engaging is because the mathematics behind it makes it so.

HANSEN: Let me ask you, though, do people really get interested about learning more about math after you've performed?

Ms. SANTOS: It's good that you asked because, you know, in our performances we never explain the math because it's not an outdoor lesson. But in doing the performances, lots of people start shouting out answers or telling the volunteer how to play and that's when people are doing the math. And they're doing it - you've got to engage in it - and they're actually learning the math. They're working it out themselves.

So, we always do busking and math has to be the entertaining bit. You will never see us doing juggling, chainsaws on fire, and then say math is cool -that's not what we do. And it's always math to take away from every performance.

HANSEN: Math busker Sara Santos is a fellow in mathematics at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Sara, thank you very much.

Ms. SANTOS: Thank you, Liane.

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