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Professor Peter Higgins delivers popular lecture ‘My Life in Mathematics’

  • Date

    Fri 18 Oct 19

Peter Higgins

Professor Peter Higgins, from our Department of Mathematical Sciences, is well-known for his interesting lectures relating to the world of maths. 

Most recently, the award-winning professor was invited by the London Mathematics Society to take part in their Popular Lectures programme where he delivered a light-hearted lecture at the Institute of Education.

Multimedia Journalism student Jessica Day-Parker caught up with Professor Higgins to chat about his lectures, and find out more about his life in mathematics.

What was the response like to the lectures you gave recently?

“It was warm and friendly. I was also gratified that some people knew about my website where I offer free tuition at university level for anyone who wants to take it up."

I understand from the lecture that you’ve been interested in maths since you were six, but what really inspired you to turn this interest into a career?

“Maths and English were the school subjects that came naturally to me so I always wanted to write and do maths properly. I did have a play professionally staged at the Lakeside Theatre in 2010. I found English Literature surprisingly like maths, in that good authors have reasons for everything they write.”

You spoke in the lecture about questioning teachers on certain ideas, how did you overcome the challenges you faced understanding certain ideas?

“I always found maths and English at school level easy, as I could see what the teachers were getting at. I am not a rebel at heart, in that I don’t question everything in a habitual way – that can just mask a lazy attitude. Teachers know more than you and you need to listen first and ask questions later. But if there is an obvious problem or shortcoming, I did like to get to the bottom of it and didn’t take to being fobbed off.

“There are certainly much better mathematicians than me but at the same time I always feel that I could understand any mathematical topic if I just muster the energy to work through it.”

What advice would you give to students also struggling to understand certain ideas?

“That is hard, as temperament comes into this as well. Many people, even those with some ability, naturally become very, very frustrated as soon as they are stuck on maths. For some reason, real mathematicians don’t respond in the same way – sure they become frustrated but not in a way that is debilitating. Ask for guidance and try to be patient.”

What led you to choose to teach at Essex?

“We lived in Australia but my wife wanted to come home to England so that’s what we did. We settled down and eventually Theresa became Mayor of Colchester, which is something that never crossed our minds when we arrived in Colchester with our four children in 1990.”

You’ve achieved a lot throughout your career, what do you think your greatest achievement is?

“There is some obscure mathematics that I am personally very proud of but being awarded, in Turin in 2013, the Premio Peano Prize for the best book about mathematics published in Italian was a real feather in my cap. It came completely out of the blue and I share the award with some very distinguished mathematicians, including two Fields medallists. But what still pleases me most is my 40-year marriage to a girl I met on a bus to Oxford in 1978.”