Behind the scenes of Dara's School of Hard Sums

It may have Dara's name all over it, but Professor Marcus du Sautoy is the true headmaster at the School of Hard Sums. We caught up with him for a natter about numbers, stand-up comics and highlights of the second series.

Dara O'Briain: School of Hard Sums

You're the man who subjects the guests to various maths-based mayhem on School of Hard Sums. What's your approach when it comes to picking what problems to hit them with?

Well, it's true to say there's an infinite array of puzzles to choose from. So what I try to do is strike a balance between something that the comedians can play with – something with an easy entry point – but which also illustrates the power of mathematical thinking. For example in the first series, we had a puzzle about getting from one place to another. It involved the comedian running by the side of a pool and then diving in to swim the distance, as a short cut. But then we showed how mathematics – a bit of algebra, a bit of calculus – gives you the power to solve the problem far more simply. And less wetly.

Do the comedians really have no advance warning on what problems you set them? Or is there a sneaky note slipped under the dressing room door? Strictly between us.

They are absolutely thrown in at the deep end – no warning at all! Dara is given an idea of the SORT of thing we'll be covering, but even he comes into it pretty much blind. But I do think comedians are naturally very well equipped for this sort of thing. When they do gigs they have no idea what'll be thrown at them, so they're good at thinking on their feet. And more generally, being comedians they tend to look at things in a weird way anyway. They take a lateral approach to everyday life. So that all helps them here.

So which of the comics has really stood out for you as a proper clever clogs?

Hmm. You know, I think Alex Horne could frankly present the programme! In the first series he really munched the problems up. He did study Latin and Greek at university, and I think learning the intricacies of language requires the same kind of logical thinking. He's coming back for this series, so he basically deserves a PhD from the School of Hard Sums.

Unlike the maths lessons most of us remember, these ones tend to feature massive props – and we don't just mean Dara. Has anything ever gone wrong?

We've had some pyrotechnics in this series – particularly in the episode involving lighting fuses. They got tangled up and started lighting each other haphazardly, and you'll be glad to know the moment has not been tactfully edited out. That’s the fun of filming these things live, there's a lot of room for mess and mess-ups. Speaking of mess, we'll also see David O'Doherty make a right hash of cutting up a cake.

What's your own favourite challenge in the new series, if you had to pick?

There's a nice puzzle about a hidden key, where it looks like the comedians really don’t have enough information at all. There are a few clues, but it basically looks hopeless – except that their seemingly random assumptions yield great results. It literally looks like magic, but actually it illustrates the true, hidden power of mathematics. And we also teach them an actual magic trick which makes it look like they can read people's minds, but again it's mathematics. Hopefully viewers will take notes and wow their mates in the pub afterwards.

Stuff to do with space or animals or history goes down a storm on telly, but mathematics is fairly late to the party. Do you think non-numerical mortals have taken to it?

People like puzzles, whether it’s doing Sudoku in a newspaper or whatever. We're tapping into that. And there's an incredible pleasure – you can see it in the comedians' faces – when a puzzle is solved. It's the "Aahhhh!" moment, and that's what we're after on the show. Plus, I bring in factoids about how mathematics is used in music, and architecture, and solving crimes – it's another way of connecting it to everyday life, and making people excited about the subject.

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