Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Shoot five: Alex Bellos and Matt Parker

Monday night saw our fifth shoot: almost halfway there. Or maybe it's only a third, if we go for a fifteen-month calendar? Such fractional debates are appropriate as this shoot was maths themed. This was also geek calendar multiplied. A duel-subject shoot: Matt Parker, “standup mathematician”, and writer Alex Bellos.

laughing at maths

You might have come across Matt's work on maths-busking, these awesome vids promoting maths teaching, or his wondrous way with socks. We also spotted a tweetpic preview of his forthcoming Edinburgh show (including shark costume).

Alex represents a more literary end of maths-popularisation. You can watch co-geekcalendar subject, Adam Rutherford, interviewing Alex about his new book, Alex's Adventures in Numberland on the BBC's Culture Show site. Alex was the Guardian's South America correspondent for five years, and ghostwrote Pelé's 2006 autobiography.

pondering bill

Seeing as we'd found two such super-cool maths geeks, we had an idea for the image of both of them arguing over the division of a bar bill. As soon as we mentioned this to Alex, he remembered a 15th century woodblock of Pythagoras and Boethius having a counting contest - one with numbers, one with counting table - and suggested we took this as an inspiration.

Geeky-credit where geeky-credit is due, it was quite geeky that Alex referenced a 15thC woodblock as an image idea, but when I forwarded this to the rest of the team, art director Louise emailed me back within minutes with the exact image. Louise is a picture researcher at the Wellcome Trust, and knows her stuff.

Matt and Alex hadn’t met before, and it was funny watching them bond over mutual maths-y acquaintances, love of puns and, most of all, calculation machines. As Mun-Keat dead-panned : “I had no idea eBay was such a depository for retro-maths kit”.

abaci Alex's curta
Matt's old calculator calculator

The coolest of these was quite clearly Alex’s Curta (top right hand corner). The Curta is the only mechanical pocket calculator, and the most accurate one up until electronic ones hit the market in the 1970s. They have quite a dramatic history, too: Curt Herzstark invented it while a prisoner in Buchenwald concentration camp (read all about this on p.194-6 of Alex's book). You can watch Alex's Curta in action in what is possibly the greatest book trailer ever made, which also has some great advice on cutting cake. On a similar topic, we can recommend a vid from Matt too, featuring his "skills for bills" (it also mentions cake).

Our location was the Jeremy Bentham pub just off Gower Street, which is officially a geeky place for a pint, Londonist says so. All in all, I think this was probably the geekiest of the shoots we’ve done so far. Trust me, Imran’s affection for research policy documents took some beating. Maybe it was the pub location, but it was also one of the most convivial.

If this snap of Louise looking at photographer-Ben’s computer is anything to go by, it looks like we caught a good shot for the calendar too.

checking the pics 2

Finally: the “cake crumbs” on the plates are actually a mix of coffee granules and mayonnaise. FACT.