MY STORY / Dr Hannah Fry
SHE WORKED OUT AN EQUATION FOR THE PERFECT SEATING PLAN AT HER WEDDING, HAS DEVELOPED A MATHEMATICAL FORMULA FOR DATING AND SHE CAN SOLVE A RUBIK’S CUBE IN UNDER THREE MINUTES (JUST DON’T CALL HER RAIN MAN)
eing a mathematician has made me ultrarational. My husband and I just moved house and we had to decide whether to stay in London. I went through all the variables: being close to family, a “leafiness” score, how long the commute would take to my job as a researcher and lecturer at University College London (UCL) and the quality of local butchers. And I made a spreadsheet. The conclusion was that we should move to Greenwich.
I love that maths is ordered. I like cold logic. In life, I code up solutions, such as working out a seating plan at my wedding three years ago. I ranked how each person would feel sitting next to each other (exes, say, got a high negative score) and used a computer to test the combinations to get high scores. A few people got together, but none were lasting relationships, unfortunately.
The rest of my family isn’t mathematical; my dad made hydraulic lifts for lorries, while my mum looked after us. It was during my last year of primary school that I got into maths. My mum is Irish Catholic and, as Irish mums often are, she’s ambitious and strict. One summer, she made me work through a maths textbook. When I went back to school, I was ahead of the other pupils. That’s the success I’ve been riding ever since. It became part of my self-identity: “This is Hannah, she’s ginger and good at maths.” I’m not like Raymond in Rain Man, counting cards in the casino, but I can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than three minutes.
I never imagined I would have the success and recognition I do as a mathematician, but fame has crept up incrementally. On BBC Four, I presented an Ada Lovelace [known as the first computer pioneer in the 19th century] documentary and co-hosted The Joy Of Data, and I’m currently writing my second book.
As a 6ft redhead at secondary school, I was below the bottom rung of the so-called “coolness ladder”. I was at eating-my-lunch-in-the-toilet level. I was bullied as a teenager, mostly names and teasing: I remember another girl saying, “You’re so flat, the walls are jealous.” That makes me laugh now. I just didn’t fit in, and I thought I was the problem. I wish somebody had told me that what makes you unusual as a teenager is what you end up appreciating about yourself, and it can give you drive.
In 2014, I gave a TED Talk, The Mathematics Of Love, to show that equations don’t just exist in textbooks. I never expected millions of people to watch it. One of the revelations was that the people on dating sites who get the most unsolicited messages aren’t those rated best looking, but those who divide opinion. It’s people who look different: quirky blue hair, a flamboyant dress sense, piercings and tattoos.
In my first book, I said there’s no point in a relationship checklist: you get blinded by criteria. That’s something I discovered myself. I met Phil, a sports writer, on a blind date when I was 25. I thought I’d be with an “alpha male”, but he’s not – he’s the loveliest man. A previous boyfriend was everything on my list – smart, witty, charming – but he wasn’t a nice person.
My book also looks at sexual contact networks, AKA the average number of sexual partners people have had. A Swedish study found that men and women had different averages, impossible in a heterosexual network*. It was because men and women count differently – women count upwards, as in, “This guy, then this guy,” leaving you prone to forgetting someone, whereas the men counted by saying, “Five a year for the past five years – that’s 25.”
Now that I teach at UCL, I sometimes see my female undergraduates struggle with confidence. It takes a long time to persuade girls they can do it. I think of myself as a role model for getting girls into STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], but in a detached way. It’s great when someone who isn’t the traditional image of a mathematician is around.
Before I got into TV, I filmed a lot of YouTube videos. That toughens you up. The first time someone wrote that I was boring, I got upset. I’ve now had everything you could imagine said about me, but I find it amusing. My favourite is, “That’s one seriously ugly dude.”
The internet means it doesn’t matter what you like, there are people out there you can find and feel validated with. That equation is simple: geek equals cool.
The Indisputable Existence Of Santa Claus by Dr Hannah Fry and Dr Thomas Oléron Evans (Doubleday) is out now