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Teachers said I could be a boxer, but never a mathematician

AT THE TOP: Dr Nira Chamberlain

TEACHERS RUNNING a careers day at Dr Nira Chamberlain’s school looked at him in disbelief when he told them he would one day like to be a professional mathematician when he grew up.

“No, no,” they said. “With your physique you should be a boxer. You’d make a very good one. Look at your jawbone.” How misguided they were in yet another example of racial stereotyping.

But Birmingham-born Nira had it all figured out. With a mind far brighter than those trying to push him into a boxing ring, he has made it right to the top of the mathematics world.

He is listed by the Science Council as ‘one of the UK’s top 100 scientists’ and last year joined the exclusive list of only 30 UK mathematicians who are featured in the world-famous Who’s Who, the autobiographical reference book.

He may have been described by Loughborough University as one of the greatest scientific minds, but Nira’s feet remain firmly on the ground and he explains mathematics as if he was talking about the football team he supports.

In fact, one of his favourite sayings is a quote from David Hilbert, one of the most influential mathematicians of the 19th and early 20th Century. Nira backs Hilbert when he says: “A mathematical theory is not considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man who you meet on the street.”

“I love that,” laughs Nira, who is a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA). “I also like what British mathematician Sir John Kingman once said that ‘mathematicians are better if they stay a bit childish and play the game as a game.’ This is the key to teaching maths.

“It’s not to flood people with practical problems, but to say that this is the best game ever invented. It beats Monopoly, it beats chess and it can help you to land rockets on the moon. The real mathematical advances have been made by people who simply loved maths.”

Rather than living in a cloistered academic world, Nira currently works for the company Babcock International Group as a principal consultant for data science and mathematical modelling.

In his day-to-day work he writes mathematical algorithms that solve complex industrial and engineering problems.

And with his abundant enthusiasm, it’s clear there is nothing Nira likes more than tackling a mathematical problem for the first time. As he says it himself: “The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.”

He says: “People have to understand that maths is one of the most creative subjects out there. It’s the poetry of logical ideas. It seems such a shame that so many people become afraid of maths early on and never shake that off.”

Boxing clever with mathematical problems is the nearest he ever got to a boxing ring, despite Muhammad Ali being his lifelong super hero.

Nira’s passion is clearly helping the next generation to find maths as exciting as he does. He’s the author of a paper about doing long multiplication and percentages without a calculator.

“I worked this out while teaching some inner-city youngsters at a Birmingham Saturday school,” Nira told The Voice. “They were only about 18 months away from doing their GCSEs and I was horrified when they told me they didn’t know how to do long multiplication, so I devised a system for them that was relatively easy.”

Nira’s passion for passing on the baton continues. He was invited by ITV political editor Robert Peston to join the charity Speakers for Schools, which provides state schools with free talks from leading UK figures to inspire the next generation.

This summer he is back in London teaching at the International Youth Science Forum, which attracts 500 of the world’s leading young scientists from more than 65 countries.

Now living in Kings Norton, Birmingham, Nira has worked all over the world helping to solve complex industrial problems in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Israel.

But there is one issue that does bother him – and it stems back to when he was a boy at school.

He said: “When one of my sons, who is now a teenager, was about four his infant school teacher asked him what he would like to be. He said he would like to be a mathematician.

“The teacher told him: ‘Well, you will never be a mathematician, but you could become a singer.'"

“That saddens me. Have we learned nothing down the generations? It makes me angry that so many careers are still being denied. As I always say ‘you don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician’.”

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