Matt Parker – The Number Ninja – The Spring, Havant – Friday May 24, 2013

Yes, that scarf does have a binary ASCII message in it

Yes, that scarf does have a binary ASCII message in it

There’s a chance you recognise Matt Parker’s name from The Festival of the Spoken Nerd (reviewed here). You may also have heard him on Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage – and if you don’t listen to that, why don’t you?, and he’s also popped up in the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast and a few other places. As science has become cooler (thanks Brian Cox), Parker is one of the people who has started to make his name in the media on the back of it.

Originally from Perth, Australia, Parker came to the UK to teach maths at Secondary school but quickly found that neither Slough nor the English youth were as appealing as they had once seemed. Having dabbled in stand-up comedy in his spare time, luck and hard work has brought him to touring his show, The Number Ninja, nationwide.

The show draws obvious comparisons with Spoken Nerd and is largely more successful thanks to the focus on one performer and one aspect of science. Where Spoken Nerd spread itself across a selection of unrelated but amusing scientific ephemera and some slightly over-rehearsed bits of comic banter, here the only relationship that matters is between Parker and his audience, something which is winningly established right from the get-go with some off-hand remarks about the local venue.

While I had seen most of the elements of the first half of the show in a combination of Spoken Nerd and other Parker appearances, the show doesn’t suffer for it, and the audience reacts strongly to all of the material on display. Some of the mathematical tricks on display – calculating the last digit of a UK bar code, ascertaining the cube route of some astonishingly high numbers – reminded me of some of the fascinating insights found in Alex Bellos‘ brilliant book Alex’s Adventures in Numberland.

All that praise said, however, the show still lacks a narrative thread to it. Maths is a broad church and, given the apparent numeracy of the crowd (many of whom have brought calculators, several attend MathsJam events), the elements picked out here lack a cohesion or anything truly illuminating. When Parker does aim for something more in-depth, bringing Graham’s Number to our attention, his entry point around X Factor singing combinations doesn’t adequately link to the point his is making about the number itself, and neither does the punchline really link back to the set-up.

The Number Ninja is a very entertaining night out, and there’s no doubt that the entire audience enjoyed the show. However, for the show to take that step up to being truly unmissable it’s clear some refinement is in order. As a suggestion out of left-field, perhaps a lesson could be taken from some of Mark Thomas’ work, or the Mark Steel Lectures. Both of these comics took stories they were fascinated by or had become involved in and turned them into comic lectures. There’s a wide world of numbers out there, and there are a lot of characters involved in the theories and formulations through the ages. By telling a coherent story that enlightens the audience but still indulges Parker’s own lust for numerical nerdiness, he could be on to a true winner.

But these are early days for this show, and shows of this type in general. There’s a huge amount of promise here, and a hugely enjoyable show, especially when things start to get really meta…

B

The second half of the show opens with the video below: Calculating Pi With Pies