Matt Parker – The Number Ninja

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…


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

Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Are You Sci-Curious?

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The Festival of the Spoken Nerd guys, getting ready to blow up a ukelele

The Festival of the Spoken Nerd guys, getting ready to blow up a ukelele

Live Comedy: Festival of the Spoken Nerd @ Forest Arts Centre, New Milton, February 1, 2013

[Sorry I’m late with this]

Festival of the Spoken Nerd (FOTSN) are made up of physics graduate and songstress Helen Arney, physics graduate and BBC presenter Steve Mould, and Australian mathematician (not mutually exclusive terms – who knew?) Matt Parker. They have slowly been gaining a larger audience through exposure on Robin Ince and Brian Cox’s Infinite Monkey Cage and the Guardian Science Podcast and this (postponed from November) show is the last stop on their first (I think) nationwide tour, and very successful it has been, by all accounts.

It’s not difficult to see why their show has been so successful either, the three performers all have a relaxed (if well-rehersed) ease with each other and the tone is of inclusion and wonder. It is clear that all three love science and want everyone else to see what it is they find so fascinating. The evening starts with a query as to how many nerds are in the audience, something which includes the reveal of the nerdiness scale (I place myself just short of the “Has memorised every XKCD comic” point), and a reassurance to those who don’t consider themselves to be a nerd that that’s OK, they’ll still enjoy the evening. In fact, I’d say that it is these who will enjoy the evening the most. Much of the incredible science being demonstrated is actually composed of things that those of us already on the way to nerdiness will always be familiar with, meaning the feelings of surprise and awe are missing. What’s left to enjoy is the banter and sparring between the three performers, but as this never feels spontaneous the fun to be had is a little muted.

What would probably have helped lift the show beyond the ‘pleasant evening out’ level would have been a sense of commonality and cohesion between the sections, but there is no over-arching theme. The shows bounces along from a demonstration of the heating properties of a parabolic dish to a song life as the sun with no more of a link than the previous performer introducing the next one. There’s a lot of science out there, and there’s a lot which is fun and fascinating (without being hugely difficult to explain) – it would be nice if FOTSN could have found a few bits and pieces that actually linked together. But hey, it’s early days for this show and, over time, I am sure they will pull together bigger and better shows. In the meantime, “Are You Sci-Curious?” is a diverting and, indeed, promising start to what is hopefully a trend of smart and science-y comedy.

6/10 (4 stars)