An interview with University Challenge star, Bobby Seagull

Luke Hallam 9 November 2018

It’s not often that you become a celebrity overnight. Bobby Seagull was one of the stars of the 2016-17 series of University Challenge as captain of Emmanuel College team, quickly emerging as a viewer favourite alongside Wolfson’s Eric Monkman. The duo rode to prominence on the wave of a Twitter storm, but fast-forward a few months and they have gone on to host a quiz at the Cambridge Union, co-author a book, and star in a TV series. Now, Seagull, a secondary school maths teacher, has released a book of his own, ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers’. I begin by asking how his life has changed since he first appeared on our screens.

“Firstly, I would say that entering UC, I didn’t expect anything […] I thought maybe the morning after somebody would have a coffee chat with me saying ‘ooh I saw you on Twitter’ and that would be it.” He explains that: “All my friends at Cambridge know that I’m really passionate about maths communication; that was always going to be the case. But what it’s done is meant that I’ve got a bigger platform for my views on maths and education. On Friday I did ‘Any Questions?’ on Radio 4, and they had Nicky Morgan from the Conservatives, Anneliese Dodds from Labour, and Sammy Wilson from the DUP […] I would never in a million years have thought that I would be invited onto ‘Any Questions?’ to give my perspective on the budget from the view of a teacher! […] I said the new budget has £420 million for potholes, and £400 million for schools, and that shows what the government’s priorities are. I’ve got a voice now.”

I ask whether, given his high profile, his pupils treat him differently to other teachers. “I would say yes and no […] A lot of the things I do are on the BBC – University Challenge, my ‘Monkman and Seagull Genius Guide’ – were BBC programmes. It’s made me realise that young people don’t really watch TV as much as my parents’ generation or even our generation do. They consume media through Instagram etc.” However, he believes that knowledge of their teacher’s TV stardom can often be beneficial. “So, next Thursday I’m doing an assembly to Year 8s and Year 9s to try and get them excited about maths […] and I hate the word ‘celebrity’, but some of them will say, ‘oh it’s that celebrity teacher’, and they’ll give me a chance, which means they’ll give maths a chance. But on the curious flip side, it makes me realise that television has got a big challenge to attract young people to watch it.” With this in mind, he tells me that he is considering starting a “‘Mr Seagull’s YouTube channel’, where once a week, students from across the world will send me questions and they’ll be like: ‘oh, this is how Mr Seagull reckons you should do Pythagoras this week’”.

For now, his main educational tool outside the classroom is his book. “The book is partly autobiographical, it’s using my life story and showing how maths has been involved in all parts of my life, whether that’s cooking, or in the gym. My favourite chapter is on the maths of dating […] There’s something called the Drake Equation which is used by astrophysicists to hypothesise the number of intelligent civilisations in a galaxy, and I’ve adapted that to estimate the number of people I can date in the UK, and I came up with the number of 73. That’s probably a bit pessimistic, but it’s cool how you can use maths to work out the population of the UK, then the percentage that are women, the percentage within a certain age range, the percentage of people that I’m attracted to… it’s made me realise that I’m too picky.”

I secretly wonder whether Seagull might be onto something if he chose to further develop some sort of Tinder for Mathmos. But our conversation moves on to the merits of the discipline more broadly. “Maths for me can help us understand a chaotic world […] What I like about maths is you can wake up and have a day where your kettle’s not working, and somebody’s borrowed your milk, and you’re going to lectures but you’ve got no cereal – and yet, you know that in that lecture 8 x 7 will always be 56. Whereas if you go to an English lecture the lecturer might have a different perspective to you.”

I am curious to know whether there is such a thing as a ‘maths brain’, as the alleged lack of one is forever given as an excuse for numerical incompetency. He explains that: “3 to 6% of the population of the UK have something called dyscalculia, which is equivalent to dyslexia. So, for those people, it’s a genuine challenge to get maths done correctly […] We all know people in our schools or universities who, when they see a concept in maths, pick it up really quickly, and then they’re onto the extension task when you haven’t even done the first task. So, of course there’s a spectrum of talent, and there’s a small minority of the population that genuinely have issues, dyscalculia in particular. But for the vast majority of us – 94 to 97% of us – there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘maths brain’”.

Finally, is the maths we are taught getting easier? “If you look at A level papers from the modern day compared with A level papers 50 years ago I would say they are easier – so there’s been a long-term trend in school maths of getting, I think, more straightforward… but in the last couple of years the new GCSEs are a bit harder.” He explains his hypothesis behind this trend, regarding the Programme for International Student Assessments (or PISA). “These are tests that students around the world do, and it compares standards in maths, your native language, and sciences. England’s position since 2000 has been falling […] I think if you’re a British education minister and you’re going to a conference – you’re probably feeling embarrassed that Britain is dropping every single year – […] so the new GCSEs are harder than previous ones […] and this is a government response, I think, to Britain’s international position falling.”

Bobby Seagull’s new book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers’ is out now. He will be signing copies at Waterstones Cambridge from 14:00 on Saturday 10th November.