Arthur Benjamin, a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd College and “mathemagician” by trade, appeared on The Colbert Report on Jan. 27.
Benjamin was invited on the show to speak about his ability to perform incredible mental calculations. He is also able to explain the mathematical bases of these calculations in a way people of any age or background can understand.
While Benjamin has years of experience performing and conducting interviews, he said that Colbert’s environment was “very different, irrelevant, irreverent, and semi-hostile.”
“I decided to roll with the punches,” Benjamin said, “[and] not be shocked if he called me a liar…the producers set me up for that, for him to insist 41 was bigger than 49.”
Benjamin said the producers urged him to reply straightforwardly and press his points, as though they wanted Colbert and Benjamin to play tug-of-war between facts and humor.
Colbert began the interview with flippant questions, asking, “Can you really have sex with math?” Benjamin has made a DVD called The Joy of Mathematics.
When it came time to demonstrate Benjamin’s skill, Colbert prompted him to square 388. Without missing a beat, Benjamin replied, “150,554.”
Colbert answered Benjamin’s logic with wisecracks throughout the interview. When Colbert asked why math matters, Benjamin replied that mathematical knowledge is the best statistical indicator of total life income. “I don’t know jack about math, and I’m loaded!,” Colbert replied.
“When I was a kid, my favorite number was 2520, because it is the smallest number divisible by all numbers one through ten,” Benjamin said, in response to one of Colbert’s final questions. “I love taking problems and pulling them apart,” he said, “and not just solving them one way, but finding several different ways to do the same problem, and amazingly, you’d always get the same answer. And I found that consistency of mathematics to be absolutely beautiful, and I still do today.”
Benjamin said he and the producers had the common goal of making math exciting for the average viewer. Benjamin has appeared on a number of television and radio programs, and he received a standing ovation at the 2005 TED conference where he presented part of his show. However, he said he was nervous in the days leading up to his Colbert appearance.
“Often, I have more control of flow,” Benjamin said of his previous interviews, “using props and making suggestions like, ‘Pick a three digit number.’ But The Colbert Report was totally unscripted and there were no retakes, and my biggest fear was screwing up, saying something foolishly.”
He felt he “struggled to show the beauty of math to a foreign audience,” but the producers told him they loved how he discussed the consistency of math in one of his final responses.
“They said it was emotional, and that they loved it, and they would like to have me back sometime,” he said.
Benjamin did not have a chance to talk extensively with Colbert outside of the interview. However, “before the show, he came to the dressing room and plugged his over-the-top character,” Benjamin said, so that he knew not to take Colbert entirely seriously.
Benjamin took the opportunity to advise Colbert about the level of mental math he can do quickly and impressively, saying, “If someone asks me to multiply two four digit numbers together in my head and I can’t do it almost instantly, it just doesn’t look good. But if he asks me to multiply two three digit numbers, square numbers or find the day of the week of any calendar day, I can do a much better job.”
Benjamin teaches combinatorics, game theory, and mathematics research.
“If I could only do one thing, I would be a professor,” he said, adding that he finds performing somewhat repetitive, but sees teaching as giving a new and different performance every day. Benjamin said he would like to see more statistics and less calculus in the math curriculum, because statistics gives insight into randomness, risk, and probability, while many people only remember calculus as “pushing numbers around.”
“People say they hate math, but people do love math,” he said. “This becomes obvious to me when a third of the people on my airplane are doing Sudoku. [Academia] needs to rethink how to present math to make it more palatable, to have less rigor and more playing.”