Ben Orlin’s signature stick figures have been (snarkily) explaining mathematical concepts since 2013 at *Math with Bad Drawings*. By day a math teacher in Birmingham, England, Ben is a voraciously curious, multidisciplinary writer and educator whose work has also been published at *The Atlantic*, the *Los Angeles Times*, and *Slate*.

As a longtime fan of his blog, I wanted to ask Ben about cannibalistic numbers, his passion for teaching, and some of the more egregious uses of math in popular culture — and he was kind enough to respond not only with his sharp words, but also his beloved “bad” drawings.

All drawings in this interview are courtesy of Ben Orlin.

**What is it about math that made you decide to teach it?
**

When it comes to learning, Iโm pretty omnivorous: Iโd have happily taught English, history, or social sciences — anything but lab sciences, really. Those are fascinating, but โBiology with Bad Methodologyโ and โChemistry with Clumsy Handsโ donโt inspire much confidence.

I decided to teach math because it seemed like that was where the action was. So many otherwise-curious people dislike math — even fear or resent it. I like making myself useful, and math education seemed like a place I could do that.

**Why do you think so many people are afraid of math?
**

Because seven ate nine?

Honestly, I think itโs how every mathematics lesson can feel like a test. โAre you still not getting it?โ โEverybody else has finished the exercise.โ โDo you need me to explain it again?โ Struggling at math makes you feel a little stupid, and that feeling hurts. Itโs threatening. You wind up rejecting the subject before it can reject you.

An error isnโt just a blemish we need to erase: itโs the outward signal of some inner thought process.

**How do you make your studentsย lessย afraid of this subject?
**

Well, to help them gain comfort with mistakes, I make an absolutely prolific number of them myself. Staggering quantities of errors. Itโs no easy feat.

I also try, every single lesson, to understand what my students are thinking. An error isnโt just a blemish we need to erase: itโs the outward signal of some inner thought process. If I can help a student unpack their own thinking, then theyโll learn to inspect ideas more closely, and absorb them more deeply.

**You’ve taught both in the US and the UK. Have you observed anyย differences between students on either side of the pond?
**

Dialects, man. Zed vs. zee, pro*trac*tor vs. *pro*tractor, exponents vs. indicesโฆ I keep a mental list of Americanisms to avoid if I donโt want to trigger a bitter, ten-minute language war with my British students.

But really, kids are kids. Theyโre great on both sides of the pond. Itโs the educational systems that differ. For example, in the US, we do yearlong themed math courses: Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus. But in the UK, itโs all jumbled up; each year is a sampler platter instead of a single dish.

Mathematics is the art of simplification: figuring out which features are essential, and which ones are extraneous.

**Some of your most popular posts have shown the beauty and intricacy of math lurking beneathย the surface of everyday things (like tac-tac-toe or high-fives). Where else can we findย math in our dailyย lives, hidden in plain sight?
**

One that I love is subway maps.

At first glance, theyโre lousy maps: curved pathways look straight; dramatically different distances look equal; north and south are crudely captured at best. Itโs like if you drew a US map where every state was an equal-sized rectangle.

But we all know how clear and useful these maps can be. And when you read them, youโre actually doing topology. Youโre disregarding certain geometric features (size of stations, length between stops, precise direction of path, etc.) and honing in on others (specifically, how the stations connect). Mathematics is the art of simplification: figuring out which features are essential, and which ones are extraneous. So subway maps are quintessential math.

It always weirds me out to see math used as thematic gibberish, random collections of words and scribbles meant to intimidate and excite the audience, like old sorcerersโ spells.

**I’m sure you seeย mathematical concepts misused all the time — are there any particularly funny casesย you’ve come across lately?
**

Iโve got a bunch of examples, because not long ago I saw the movie *ฯ*, which turns out to be a hot jambalaya of total crazy.

First, the protagonist Max proves his mathematical genius by multiplying 322 by 491. But as any mathematician will tell you: thatโs not math. As you advance, you work with numbers less, and abstractions more. A strong 15-year-old student is probably quicker at mental math than a 35-year-old mathematician. So thereโs your โmath is just computationโ myth.

Second, a stranger starts spying on Max, because heโs apparently on the cusp of unlocking the universeโs secrets with his math. But when we see what heโs writing, itโs fifth-grade formulas like โA = ฯr2.โ So thereโs your โmath is exotic and inscrutableโ myth.

Then, at the end of the film, when itโs revealed that the secret to existence is a 216-digit number, Max says to his enemies, โYou must have already written down every 216-digit number.โ But this is totally insane. If you wrote down a trillion trillion trillion numbers every nanosecond since the start of the universe, you would be only 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% of the way done by now.

That oneโs not really a myth, itโs just wildly inaccurate.

I donโt mean to pick on writer-director Darren Aronofsky, whoโs made some great movies since. But it always weirds me out to see math used as thematic gibberish, random collections of words and scribbles meant to intimidate and excite the audience, like old sorcerersโ spells. It makes me worry that this is how math always appears to people!

**You often tackle other topics with “bad drawings” — like in your widely-circulated post on the Yale admissions process. What other topics are youย interested in debunking or unpacking with your humor and visual acumen?
**

Well, โvisual acumenโ is a pretty lofty phrase for โkeeps a box of sharpies on his desk,โ but Iโll take it! Iโve actually got a folder of half-baked ideas-in-progress. Hereโs a sample of document titles:

No idea which of these will actually become posts. Probably a few. Maybe none. Time (and my own erratic sense of obligation) will tell.

Read more from Ben at *Math with Bad Drawings*, and follow him on Twitter (@benorlin).

Hahaha! Amazingly creative pictures! And you have done a great work on it! Totally loved it. ๐ ๐

LikeLiked by 13 people

“I decided to teach math because it seemed like that was where the action was.” Yes, that’s hilarious.

LikeLiked by 6 people

Hahaha! Those were some crazy sketches. Very engaging and funny, though!

LikeLiked by 4 people

Loved the sketches as well, really added something….

LikeLiked by 3 people

Strangely when reading this I was reminded of my 10th grade Geometry teacher telling us that he didn’t want answers on the test which were like: What is the opposite of an acute angle? Answer: “An Ugly angle”. I enjoyed this, though I absolutely hated Calculus. Everything up to that I was okay with, somehow I am sure the teachers had a lot to do with my acute dislike of the subject being as the majority of them barely spoke the same language as I do.

LikeLiked by 3 people

Amazing! Absolutely amazing!

LikeLiked by 5 people

That was help me to teach math on Elementary School. Thank you!

LikeLiked by 4 people

Great post! I loved it and loved the pictures!!!

LikeLiked by 5 people

Math was never my favourite subject. Too many numbers and I break out in a cold sweat. Maybe if my teachers had made it more interesting (via a few cute stick drawings) I may in turn have done better. It looks as though you are a great teacher who is genuinely interested in his students. Keep up the good work ๐

LikeLiked by 7 people

This was very interesting. I fell into math teaching as well. Definitely going to check him and his drawings out ๐

LikeLiked by 4 people