It’s about math (but don’t be scared)

October 28, 2020

What if public radio’s This American Life, Radiolab, and Snap Judgment combined their DNA and had a baby with a mathematician? That offspring would be the podcast Relatively Prime: Stories from the Mathematical Domain, brought to you by Samuel Hansen, mathematics and statistics librarian at the University of Michigan Library.

A math major as an undergraduate, Hansen was a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when they came to the realization that, “doing math is fine, but I really love talking about math.”

The storytelling Hansen offers in episodes of Relatively Prime brings life — and humor — to what is often perceived as a dry topic.

Math as fun

Chances are, when you were a K-12 student, you were asked what you wanted to be when you grew up. If you didn’t say “a mathematician” — maybe you didn’t even know this was a profession — you might be among the many people who can’t imagine finding fun in mathematics. If so, Hansen says Relatively Prime is for you.

One person who gave Hansen a view of what could be was Tim Chartier, professor of mathematics at Davidson College in North Carolina. Chartier teaches a math class for liberal arts students, and his primary goal is to have each person leave with one positive memory about mathematics. Hansen realized, “That’s what I want to do, too!”

The goal for the mathematics podcast was set: “I want you to leave with a new memory with a positive connotation — or at least a new story to share.”

The stories

Hansen finds stories in the mathematical domain to tell.

When asked about their favorite episode, their immediate answer is: “‘Chinook!’ It’s about the AI (artificial intelligence) that defeated the game of checkers.”

Hansen also names “The Somervilles,” an episode about the eminent mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville, who was able to research and publish in 19th-century England despite her gender.

And then there’s the one about the interactive fiction game, “A Beauty Cold and Austere.” And the one about politics and gerrymandering, and one about math and dating, where actors read real messages Hansen received in dating apps. 

Hansen has a hard time picking a favorite.

“There’s also a series with a bit of a library tie-in,” Hansen says. “‘The Cycle of Mathematics.’ It’s basically the story of a mathematical paper, in four episodes: research and writing, indexing, publishing, and then what the user does with it.” 

Hansen’s passion for mathematics is infectious. Listen to one podcast, and you’ll go back for more.

The evolution

Hansen’s foray into math edutainment started when they were in graduate school, as the host of a jokey panel show called Combinations and Permutations that featured fellow students. A more serious podcast called Strongly Connected Components came later, presenting interviews with mathematicians. Then came Math/Maths. That extended training ground honed their skills as producer and host.

When Hansen decided to produce a professional podcast, they needed an infusion of resources. A Kickstarter campaign financed the first eight-episode season, which was released in 2012, and a second campaign financed another eight episodes in 2015. Those first 16 episodes covered multiple stories about a single topic in each hour-long episode.

Now, each episode encompasses a single story, and can range anywhere from 12 to 60 minutes. The running length is determined by how much time it takes to tell the story. And there are many more stories to be told.

“You’d be amazed at the variety of issues that mathematicians are asked to address,” Hansen says. “When administrators in the State of Washington were figuring out how to equitably distribute a limited number of cannabis licenses, they solved the problem by talking to a mathematician.”

At U-M, Hansen enjoys helping faculty and students with research and instruction, but likes to remind people that “mathematics doesn’t always have to mean coursework.” Their mathematics research guide includes a Mathematical Entertainment section, with the podcast one among many offerings.

Tune in the second week in November, when guest hosts take over the podcast for Black in Math Week. 

Relatively Prime is available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, and Stitcher.


by Mary Morris

Samuel Hansen, producer and host of the podcast Relatively Prime


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