Visiting Fellow: Professor Imre Leader
On 12 January 2012 the Mathematics department was delighted to welcome Professor Imre Leader, Trinity College, Cambridge, for a two-day visit. Professor Leader is an expert in the field of Combinatorics, and as well as being an active researcher he also is a popular lecturer at the University. Professor Leader represented the UK in the 1981 International Mathematics Olympiad, and he later managed the team between 1999 and 2001. He has published widely and is a co-author of The Princeton Companion to Mathematics.
Away from Mathematics he is one of the country’s top players of Othello (Reversi), and he has won the British championships an unprecedented ten times, as well as being a runner-up in the world championships. Professor Leader was invited to visit the school not only for his eminence within Mathematics, but also his ability to communicate subtle and beautiful ideas.
During the visit Professor Leader sat in on various lessons, including Dr Fugard’s Mathematics Extension set in the Lower Sixth, Dr Williams’ top set Year 10 and Mr Vaccaro’s Year 8 set. He commented on both the level of achievement and the warm and friendly atmosphere of these classes, with students unafraid to push themselves and share ideas when faced with non-routine, challenging problems. He also visited Mark Beverley’s Lower Sixth TOK class, and was greatly impressed with the role of this synoptic course in encouraging students to think freely and develop critical sensibilities. He thought the material on logical fallacies was especially worthwhile, as forming rigorous proofs and arguments is a vital skill for higher Mathematics.
Lucky students from Years 7, 8 and the Lower Sixth also had the opportunity to work in small groups with Professor Leader, looking at Olympiad style questions. The students were chosen either because of their mathematical ability or their attendance at Mathematics Society events and lunchtime Puzzle Clubs. The younger students looked at tiling problems, for example whether it is possible to tile a 7x4 rectangle using the five different tiles from the game Tetris, and the Lower Sixth group looked at challenging problems about the properties of primes. The Maths department feels that the sessions with the younger students were particularly important, as it is at this age where a lifelong passion for Mathematics can develop. Thea Beadle from Year 7 and Miles Caven and Hethvi Gada from Year 8 were notable for their enthusiasm and problem solving skills.
The highlight of the visit was Professor Leader’s own lecture delivered to the Lower Sixth, where he presented a recent and surprisingly difficult result from graph theory. At the start of the lecture he posed the innocuous looking question: ‘Does a long string of red and blue beads always contain four equally spaced beads of the same colour?’ The answer turned out to be yes, but the numbers involved in the proof soon became astronomically, almost inconceivably large. It was a masterly presentation of a difficult result, with several neat tricks and shortcuts, and without a single equation in sight. What a wonderful advert for Pure Mathematics, showing how much more rich the subject is than the all too prevalent fare of rote learned techniques and standard methods.
It was wonderful to see such a successful academic take a keen interest in all areas of school life; throughout his visit he was full of questions for both staff and pupils, and he seemed extremely keen to find out more about the wider aspects of school life and the IB, even attending a Sixth Form student's presentation on his Extended Essay. He was also happy to discuss all areas of Mathematics with the pupils, and led a very productive Beginners Guide to Mathematics at University in which he talked students through the various options and debunked several myths about Oxbridge admissions and interviews. (Disappointingly, all the media reports of psychological warfare and trick questions are completely made up!)
It was a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Professor Leader to the school, and we very much hope that he would like to return in the future. However most of all we hope that his manifest passion for the subject will enthuse and inspire some of our current pupils about the joys of mathematical ideas and problem solving.