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Tech Q&A

Chris Sangwin

Describe your latest project.
My latest book, co-authored with John Bryant, is called How Round Is Your Circle?: Where Engineering and Mathematics Meet. There are lots of engineering situations, which require mathematics, and also others which have inspired new lines of mathematical enquiry. What we try to show is how some apparently simple sounding things need mathematics to appreciate them fully. Real lines have width, unlike the lines of classical geometry, and this has some awkward and interesting consequences. How do you draw a straight line, or constrain heavy machinery to move in a straight line without a straight guide? How to you check if something manufactured is really round? How do you measure the area of an irregular plane shape? It all seems simple, but there are hidden catches, which make the practical engineering awkward and the mathematics fascinating.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I am trying to understand what goes on around me. I don't feel satisfied unless I've written a solution which is going to convince someone else, so writing is an essential part of the problem solving process. I'm also very enthusiastic about counter-intuitive results. They certainly inspire me, and they seem to inspire my students as well.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I've been very lucky in that I have had a number of really good teachers and it wouldn't be fair to single out one. Mrs Donohue and Miss Sylvester at primary school, and Mr Burridge and Mrs Alpres who taught me at secondary school do deserve a special mention. Thank you.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
No, I've never taken the Geek Test, but if I had I'd probably be too embarrassed to publish my rating anyway!

Chess or video games?
I did enjoy chess as a child and played with my father. I never really got into the game in a competitive way because I don't remember there being a suitable junior chess club around — competition can be very helpful sometimes. I've never been all that interested in computer games although I did spend a lot of time as a child programming my computer instead which was a kind of game in itself really.

What do you do for relaxation?
I'm not really all that good at sitting still, and so I like to walk up hills and in the mountains: anywhere which is wild and remote. This is the only exercise I really enjoy and I find it very relaxing indeed. It is also surprisingly sociable when you spend a whole weekend with a small group of close friends. I also recently took up bee keeping. I can't remember having had quite as much fun with a new hobby in a long time, and it is surprisingly relaxing and absorbing. The honey tastes nice as well which is a bonus!

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
I think I'd have to go for Douglas Adams here. I do quite like silly science fiction, but if I'd taken the Geek test I'm sure that would have come out anyway!

What was your favorite book as a kid?
The first book I really remember as being a favorite as a very young child was How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban with the delightful illustrations by Quentin Blake. Poor Tom is in the care of his tyrannous Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong who is determined to ensure he stops fooling around. I can still remember her "iron hat" and that "where she walked the flowers drooped and when she sang the trees all shivered"! She hires Captain Najork to teach him a lesson but, needless to say, Tom isn't so easily put off...

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
A couple of years ago a colleague showed me a "washing machine" for doing laundry which was a disc about 10cm in diameter and 1cm thick with an electric flex and plug. You place your laundry in a bucket of cold water with a low temperature detergent and this thing and leave it plugged in over night. The disc emits piezoelectric sound which creates microscopic cavitation bubbles. When the bubbles collapse they shift the dirt from the fibers into solution. Then you rinse and spin before hanging to dry. The clothes last longer because they aren't being churned around. The whole thing is solid state, cheap to make and is portable. Even better it runs on very little power — solar power would be enough. Just think of all the people, mostly women, in underdeveloped countries scrubbing laundry by hand and how much better off they would be free to do other things.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
I think the Museum of Science and Technology in London is hard to beat. The reconstruction of Charles Babbage's mechanical computer is just wonderful.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
It is a shame we are still thinking in terms of twentieth century notions of who is "top nation". I sincerely hope that we can use the internet to make global communication between scientists and technologists a reality for everyone's benefit. Ideas should be freely shared and not locked away in libraries which only an exclusive few people have permission to use.

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Chris Sangwin is a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Birmingham. He is the coauthor of Mathematics Galore.

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