Behind the lines: exploring the Mathematics in a hit novel and stage show

QE boys went to a special interactive lecture show looking at the Mathematics behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the best-selling book and award-winning stage show.

Forty-three Year 11 pupils travelled to the event at the West End Gielgud Theatre, which is also currently hosting the stage play.
It was, said pupil Kishan Patel, “really fun and had lots of humour” – a sentiment echoed by his classmate, Nico Puthu, who found the show “very funny with a lot of interesting problems and concepts that you don’t see every day”, while Nishant Saxena said: “The show got us to think outside the box.”

""Hosted by comedian and Mathematics communicator Matt Parker, the lecture show, entitled The Curious Coincidence of Maths in the Day-Time, was split into two main parts. The first half explored some of the intriguing and often beautiful mathematical ideas that are touched on in the book, while the second part examined aspects of Mathematics involved in the staging of the smash-hit West End production.

""Rob Eastaway, writer of many popular Mathematics books, started by considering the book’s title. He asked what was curious about the dog’s behaviour. The fact that the dog did not bark turns out to be useful information. He went on to look at two other situations in which a lack of data is significant. Kiran Aberdeen took to the stage to see if he could guess the colour of the hat he was wearing – his fellow pupil, Sehj Khanna, found this the most enjoyable part of the show. Rob Eastaway then showed how the distribution of bullet holes on returning aircraft in the war was used to decide where reinforcement was needed.

In the book, the main protagonist, Christopher, must find his way to Fenchurch Street Station when he only knows the approximate direction he should travel in. His strategy led Hannah Fry, lecturer in the Mathematics of Cities at UCL, to look at algorithms for finding the way through a maze, with applications to satellite navigation. She considered how ants navigate their way to food and back to their nest.

""A question about the population of frogs in a pond prompted freelance Mathematics speaker Ben Sparks to describe how an iteration formula that is easy to state for populations may turn out to have very complicated, chaotic outcomes. Rob and Hannah looked at two situations in probability that are counterintuitive. In Hannah’s example, she considered how unlikely events are likely to be seen given sufficient observations, whilst Rob looked at a variation of the famous Monty Hall Problem (a probability puzzle).

""The second half of the lecture show started with a performance of a scene from the play in which the main character described how he had answered an A-level question involving Pythagoras’ Theorem. Matt Parker then showed a 1:25 scale model of the stage (including furniture) made by the set designer. Since the set is a laid out as a coordinate grid it was possible to position model furniture in the model and then show the real thing on the stage, he explained. In a recorded interview with the set designer, the audience learned that the accurate model is used to check all aspects of the staging and construction. Set design uses a surprising amount of mathematics.

""Ben Sparks, who is a musician as well as a mathematician, spoke with the composer, Adrian Sutton, who wrote the score for the play. In the book, the chapters are numbered with the prime numbers; Adrian therefore used prime numbers to shape the music.

The show closed with Rob, Hannah and Ben each sharing a snippet of interesting Mathematics. They looked at: sine waves and sound; Penrose tiling (a pattern of tiling named after the mathematician and physicist, Roger Penrose) and exponential growth.

Afterwards, pupil Bashmy Basheer reflected on the show: “I found the set of talks both informative and fun; it really showed me the beauty of Maths.”