Interview 51. – Dr Colin Wright


Colin Wright graduated in 1982 from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, with a B.Sc.(Hons) in Pure Mathematics, and went on to receive his doctorate in 1990 from Cambridge University, England. While at Cambridge he also learned how to fire-breathe, unicycle, juggle and ballroom dance, although not all at the same time.

Since then he has worked as a research mathematician, a computer programmer, and an electronics hardware designer, taking time to give presentations all over the world (over 20 countries and still increasing!) on a wide variety of mathematical topics, including “The Unexpected Mathematics of Juggling”.

Twitter: @ColinTheMathmo


Mastodon: @ColinTheMathmo

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Oh, so many things.  I’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing, and been blown away by the skills of the professionals and the progress of the celebrities.  Another is that while running the most recent MathsJam weekend I’ve been utterly humbled by the generosity of the participants with both their time and money.

Another is simply that the graphs of cos(x) and tan(x) intersect at right-angles, and their gradients are the Golden Ratio.

How did they make me feel?  Well, apart from “amazed,” they made me feel, in equal measure, depressed at how little I achieve some days, and inspired to work harder.  But overall, I get a kind of internal “glow” when I come across something new and unexpected.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

“Wonder” is when you get that “Gosh” feeling, gently surprised by something you hadn’t expected.  “Awe” carries an additional sense of being humbled by what you’ve seen/experienced.  “Curiosity” is when you are then drawn forward, wanting to know more, wanting to know how it works, or why it’s true.  “Wonder” will often inspire “curiosity”, while the sense of “awe” may or may not be there.


What inspires you to be creative? Do you have any “rituals” or an environment that aids your creativity?

I’d claim that I’m not at all creative. I love to know more about things, and then as flitting from topic to topic, sometimes things come together.  Generally, I just want to know about stuff, to know how it works, or why it’s true, and then pursuing them can lead to lucky coincidences.

I read, write, chat, idly toy with things, and generally try to have a lot going on in my head all at the same time. That’s just who I am, and what I do, so there are no “rituals” or “processes” to make that happen.


What do you love about magic?

The design of the illusion, the absolute skill of the performance, the construction of the presentation as a whole, and then sometimes the working out of how it had to happen.  Knowing how it works adds enormously to my enjoyment, simply because I can then appreciate the skills involved.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

There are occasions when the performance is primarily to confuse, rather than to instil a sense of wonder. Also, there are occasions when the performance doesn’t “gel” as a complete experience. There is a difficult balance to strike – the point is entertainment; the magic is a vehicle.  But to answer the actual question, I have no idea what it is about a magic trick that makes people experience “wonder”, so I don’t really know.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

No idea.  Genuinely, no idea.  I’ve met people who, upon being shown something I think is fascinating, are utterly unengaged.  It seems that some people are just *always* unengaged, no matter what they are shown.  So, I don’t know where “wonder” comes from, why it is sometimes missing, or how it might be cultivated.  The only thing I can suggest is that the first step must be to get someone engaged and interacting. Without that you have *no* chance.  But even once you have someone interacting, I’ve no idea what the next step would be.


At first glance, juggling and mathematics don’t go together naturally.  However, you’re well known for speaking on this very curious mix.  Can you tell me more about how this came about?

In my case I was always into mathematics, and only later took up juggling as a hobby.  In trying to compile a schedule of tricks to practice, some friends and I devised a notation for simple patterns, and then found that the notation allowed us to find connections between tricks, and to find tricks we didn’t know.

Mathematics is about pattern and structure, so perhaps in retrospect it’s no surprise that there is mathematics to be found in describing connections between juggling tricks. Recent research has also suggested a strong link between mathematics and so-called “interceptive skills” such as catching balls, or hitting balls with a bat.  The jury is out on that one, but historically there has been a long association between mathematics and juggling, just as there is between music and maths.  Whether there is a causal link, or possibly a confounding factor, no one yet knows.  The correlation is undeniable.


What is MathsJam? How did it come about? And what have been the successes of the conference?

Matt Parker started having informal gatherings with friends in pubs each month, during which people would swap puzzles, play games, and generally be “mathsy”.  This was taken up by Katie Steckles in Manchester, and so the “Monthly MathsJam” movement started.

When I returned from the 2010 Gathering for Gardner it was suggested that we start up a similar event here in the UK, and so was born the Annual MathsJam Gathering.  It’s a weekend when people who like any type of games, puzzles, toys, or mathematical curiosities can get together and share things they’ve found interesting.  In particular, though, many maths-types (whatever that means!) find that in real life they need to hide their interest in things technical – the MathsJam weekend is a gathering where you can be yourself, and enjoy the company of other “mathsy-types”.

And it’s not just mathematicians, we’ve had people from all walks of life, not always technical, and certainly not always mathematical.

Successes?  People keep coming back!  It’s being going 9 years now and grown from 80 delegates to 200. People have got back into maths, and many say it’s the highlight of their year.  But watching people having fun and being themselves is the success.


You’ve gone to war with the imbalanced ticket price system for UK train journeys. Apart from the financial savings, what compels a man to write custom code to interrogate the National Rail timetables and optimise travel routes?

I wouldn’t say I’ve gone to war with it, but I’ve certainly had a go at finding ticket combinations that significantly reduce my expenditure. It’s an interesting challenge, and that’s what engineering, maths, and science are all about – the challenge.
Yes, in this case it’s useful, but that’s just a side-benefit.  The real interest is in the thrill of the chase!

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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