In September this year, the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) Celebration Lecture took place in the remarkable surroundings of Central Hall Westminster. This celebratory gathering of students and their parents, and UK Maths Trust volunteers, was the perfect opportunity to present The UK Maths Trust’s “Outstanding Volunteer Contribution Award”.
Peter Ransom MBE, the recipient of the award, has made an immeasurable mark on the history of the Trust’s work.
Here we find him in conversation with another long-standing and much respected UKMT volunteer, Howard Groves MBE (HG).
HG: The Schools’ Mathematical Challenge, the forerunner of today’s UKMT Junior and Intermediate Challenges, first appeared in 1988. You were one of the original five members of the problems group which set that and subsequent papers. How did this come about?
PR: It arose from a meeting of The Mathematical Association where discussion was about starting our own National Mathematics Contest rather than using the American one. We also wanted to start something to embrace more than just the oldest and highest attaining students aiming for at least 30 percent of each year’s cohort. Tony Gardiner took the initiative to host the first meeting at, I think, the Midland Hotel in Birmingham and it just grew from there.
HG: Over the years, you have set many Challenge problems about someone called Gill, who appeared in that first Schools’ Mathematical Challenge. Can you tell us about Gill?
PR: My imaginary friend! It seemed good to have the baby grow up over the years and needed a name that had four letters with one repeat, as the question involved some simple combinatorics. She’s my muse, coming to help when I’ve been looking for interesting situations in which to set a ‘real-life’ question.
HG: Setting Challenge problems is just one of the ways you have been involved with UKMT. In which other areas have you volunteered?
PR: I got sucked into setting the crossnumbers for the Team Maths Challenge (TMC) back in 2011 I think it was. Initially, I helped by designing a grid and a few clues, then the following year was asked to do it all. This involved setting two crossnumbers a year for the TMC, then a couple of years later another two for the Senior Team Maths Challenge. It was time to pass the baton over when Covid struck and the Team Challenges stopped. I was also running out of fresh clues and not being familiar with all the contents of various syllabi, some of the questions I set were unfortunately considered out of bounds.
I’ve also participated in marking weekends at Leeds, marking the Junior Mathematical Olympiad papers and Intermediate Mathematical Olympiad and Kangaroo, and Maclaurin papers for many years. These were always joyous weekends, meeting people with similar interests and discussing, face to face, the impressive ways students have of answering those questions. I did some marking online when Covid came in, but didn’t enjoy that very much.
Over the years my alter-egos have done many mathematics masterclass sessions for the UKMT at various venues and enjoyed every minute of these! These are workshops performed in period costume, bringing to life the mathematics used and the history behind it. The persona included John Blagrave (sundials, died 1611), John Blackthorne (navigation, died c.1620 in Japan), Newton (inertia, optics, binomial expansion 1642-1727), Able seaman Ransom (Trafalgar 1805), Brunel (technology involving quadratics, wireless graphing calculators and proportional dividers 1806-1859), Flight Sergeant Ransom (geometry of the Dambusters 1943). Teaching involves theatre, which helps bring subjects to life!
HG: You have been involved with several other organisations in the world of mathematics and were President of the Mathematical Association in 2013. Was there a particular highlight of your year in office?
PR: Probably giving the Presidential Address (The Triumphs and Tribulations of Teaching Mathematics) at the 2014 British Congress of Mathematical Education (BCME) Conference in Nottingham. Being President involves spending three years on Council, first as President Designate, then as President and after that, as Immediate Past President. Subsequently I was elected as Chair of Council which I held for the full five years’ term. This involved eight meetings a year in Leicester – four Council meetings and four Standing Committee meetings. For the Council meetings I’d go up on the Friday morning and spend the afternoon going over the papers with a couple of people at HQ.
HG: You were awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2019 for voluntary service to Mathematics Education: a well-deserved recognition of your work. Please tell us about the investiture at Buckingham Palace.
PR: This was a very interesting and lovely day with my family. I’d had a tooth extracted the morning before the investiture, so I just had to hope I didn’t spit blood when talking to Prince William who gave me the medal. My wife and two daughters were present at the ceremony and we were joined by my son-in-law and three grandsons (10, 8 and 2) for the photographs afterwards. Due to their age, we were hustled to the front of the queue for photographs! View Peter and his MBE here.
HG: I believe you have a particular interest in sundials. How did this interest start, and do you have a particular favourite sundial?
PR: That’s correct! I was responsible for organising The Mathematical Association’s Annual Conference at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1991 and with my friends, Peter & Ruth Wallis and John Fauvel, we decided to put on a display called Mathematical Tradition in the North of England. This resulted in 42 A1 boards! Clearly there was a tremendous amount of interesting material, which would be too much to take in at once, so we also published a 64-page A4 book to accompany it.
One of the people mentioned in the book was William Emerson and when I went to inspect his tomb in the village of Hurworth, I noticed a number of sundials made by him or his contemporaries. Emerson wrote Dialling in 1770 and this intrigued me. I joined the British Sundial Society to learn more and realised that a tremendous amount of mathematics could be taught through sundials. So, I developed lessons for Year 7 through to Year 11 based on sundials, as this is a practical use of mathematics and by making one it meant that my students could take something concrete home to show their parents.
Back in 2007 I submitted a proposed case study on sundials to the Bowland Initiative and this was accepted as one of the 20 case studies to be included in Bowland Maths – the case study with videos, worksheets, lesson plans and teacher notes can be found at Welcome to Bowland Maths.
Probably my favourite one is held by a statue created for the Millennium in Andover. Claire Norrington, a local artist created the statue and I did the calculations for the dial he holds above his head, making sure it was welded correctly at the right inclination and then making sure it was orientated correctly when it was set in concrete. You can see it in the sundial trail of Test Valley that I wrote Test Valley sundial trail (sundials.co)
HG: Although you spent quite some time in the North-East and have lived in Hampshire for several years, you are originally from Liverpool. Are you a ‘Red’ or a ‘Blue’?
PR: I started off as a red. My wife is a Geordie, so I also supported Newcastle when we lived in the north east for 20 years, so perhaps I’m a red, black and white. That’s good as we’ve lived in Southampton now for 30 years and they play in those three colours!
HG: I understand that you’ve visited other countries with your mathematics. Can you elaborate?
PR: Of course. I got the bug when I attended the sixth International Congress on Mathematical Education (ICME) in Budapest in 1988. I’d been to a meeting in Manchester where attendees were told what ICME was about and encouraged to attend, and so some of us decided to run a mathematical circus one afternoon there. With over 4000 people involved in mathematical education attending for the week it was rather overwhelming, but I came back buzzing with new ideas and I’d got the bug! I went on to attend ICME-7 in Quebec (1992), ICME-8 in Seville (1996), ICME-9 in Tokyo (2000), ICME-10 in Copenhagen (2004), ICME-11 in Mexico City (2008) and ICME-12 in Seoul (2012). Since these involved a lot of travel, I also attended follow-on conferences of the History and Pedagogy of Mathematics in nearby cities/countries.
I always found that there were grants to help with travel and accommodation, but since I retired from school teaching in 2010, I then had to fund a substantial amount myself.
If you get the opportunity to attend then it adds a tremendous amount to your experience if you do a workshop and/or present a paper – nerve wracking at first and always, but the buzz you get is incredible!
HG: Do you remember the first mathematics book you read?
PR: Yes! I do – I still have it, as it was a school prize for attainment when I was 8. They asked me what kind of book I would like and I took them a bit by surprise by asking for a maths book.
It is The Giant Colour book of Mathematics by Irving Adler and I was fascinated by it with its historical bits and the wide range of interesting mathematics it covered. It introduced me to graphs, group theory and complex numbers. A great eye-opener to topics I met later on in mathematics. It is a book that should be in every school library and on every mathematics teacher’s want list. It led me into reading Martin Gardiner’s recreational mathematics books at secondary school and throughout my career whenever a new one appeared.
HG: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
PR: Yes, lots, but I doubt it would be of interest, but I do have some advice for anyone who has read this far.
When the call for volunteers goes out, don’t be shy. Put your hand up and say yes! You’ll meet some fantastic people and open many doors of opportunity. It’s surprising what you can get done in a day (and night) – the time for rest is when you are the other side of the grass.
HG: Finally, now that you are stepping down as a UKMT volunteer, what are you going to do with all that spare time?
PR: For the past few years, I’ve been playing an oboe after a gap of 50 years. (I played one for one year when I was in school in 1968 as it was easier carrying an oboe on the bus into Liverpool in the rush hour than the cello I’d played in my first year.) Last year I decided to join a band and found that far more fun than practising on my own. The band wasn’t all that local, so I put a notice in my village news to see about starting up a community band and this now has 12 regular players aged from early 20s to late 70s. We practise every Wednesday evening for two hours and some of us play at a local care home every three weeks. We’ve got three concerts coming up before Christmas, so there’s plenty of organising to do! We have a Facebook site at Nursling & Rownhams Community Band | Facebook where we’ve put the music we played at a concert in June.
I’m also Chair of the local Bridge Club and play every Thursday evening. I’ve played bridge regularly since 1972. That, like the music, takes all the pressures of work away for a few hours each week.
On a Wednesday morning I help out at our local observatory. There’s always some maintenance needed and preparation for the open nights held two evenings each month. Now the nights are dark, it’s excellent viewing time. I sat my GCSE Astronomy in 1994 (gaining an A* – probably the only subject where the star has some relevance!) and this year have helped a friend with his GCSE Astronomy by correspondence as I have all my notes from when I did the correspondence course.
When the need arises, I do a bit of bookbinding. I’ve been binding the British Sundial Society’s Bulletin and the North American Sundial Society’s Compendium into annual volumes every year for the last ten years and repairing old mathematics books that need a bit of tlc, so they can live another day! There’s a wealth of interesting problems in old books that can be worked into new JMC or IMC questions!
Thank you, Peter.