Sir Christopher Zeeman

Ri Clothworkers’ Fellow in Mathematics Bob Cresswell gathers some memories of the late Sir Christopher Zeeman, Christmas Lecturer and founder of Ri Masterclasses.

  • Sir Christopher Zeeman. Credit: Royal Institution

  • Sir Christopher Zeeman.     Credit: Royal Institution

Sir Erik Christopher Zeeman (4 February 1925 – 13 February 2016), was one of the greatest British mathematicians of his generation. In 1978 he gave the CHRISTMAS LECTURES - the first mathematician to do so since the Lectures were initiated by Michael Faraday in 1825.

Such was the interest and enthusiasm sparked by Zeeman’s Lectures, ‘Mathematics into pictures’, which covered topics including boomerangs, gyroscopes and catastrophe theory, that Sir George Porter, then Director of the Royal Institution, was prompted to explore the possibilities for further mathematical activity at the Royal Institution. In 1981, the first secondary Ri Mathematics Masterclass was set up. Since then the Ri Masterclass series has expanded to include primary mathematics, engineering and computer science.

There are approximately 800 to 1000 volunteers around the UK organising, supervising, helping and delivering knowledge-broadening Ri Masterclass sessions and opening up STEM career options, of which many would not have been aware previously. An increasing number of these contributors have themselves attended Ri Masterclasses as students and go on to become involved in the programme.

We invited members of our Masterclass community, past and present, to share their favourite memories of Prof Zeeman and what his legacy means to them. 

'My earliest memories of Christopher were of Cambridge in the early 1960s. His enthusiasm and approachability marked him out as someone special. So did his informality. I remember him arriving one summer day in khaki shorts and sandals, entering wearing his gown but immediately taking this off, rolling it up and dumping it on the floor in the corner, before whisking us into the realm of five dimensions where he seemed entirely at home. I was very pleased to be asked to join a working part to respond to the flood of requests to the Ri for more mathematics … Gradually more people began to take the classes, and the number of series expanded, but Christopher's sessions were always highlights.’
Terry Heard, attended first Ri Masterclass on 10th January 1981 as a teacher and has been involved ever since.

'My main memory [of Christopher Zeeman] was as a 13 year old coming to, unbeknown to me at the time, the second series ever of the Ri Masterclasses … He gave a talk on geometry, which included spherical geometry, negative curvature and perspective geometry. What I particularly remember is learning the angle sum of a triangle on a sphere (which varies depending on the proportion of the surface of the sphere that the triangle takes up). I still occasionally use this formula in class with students!' 
Andrew Palfreyman, current Ri Masterclass speaker.

‘It was Christopher Zeeman who directly got me involved in Ri Masterclasses and public engagement in general … When I left Hertford to move to Bristol he insisted that I get involved in the Bristol/Bath group … And the rest is history. I can also tell you a wonderful story about how he designed my wedding cake!'
Professor Chris Budd, University of Bath and Ri Professor of Mathematics. 

'It was a shame he was unwell on the day of a visit to the Ri by The Queen, as he had planned to throw a boomerang towards the Queen, and it would circle her and come back to him. He, and only he, could have gotten away with that.' 
Vinay Kathotia, Clothworkers’ Fellow In Mathematics (2005 – 2010) and current Ri Masterclass speaker. 

'After one of Christopher's Ri Masterclasses, I was with him in the kitchen doing the washing up. It was a few weeks after Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Christopher had said to me that the proof in the case n=3 requires only the mathematics done in year nine… It is true that the mathematical ideas are known to a bright young mathematician but it requires quite a lot of algebra. This Christopher explained to me without any aids at all. Indeed his hands were covered in Fairy liquid! I couldn't help but think how lucky I was to have had such a wonderful mathematical episode in the old Ri kitchen with one of the world's best exponents of public engagement.'
Professor Alan Davies, University of Hertfordshire. Former Ri trustee and Ri Masterclass Presenter for over 20 years.

  • Ri Masterclasses are hands-on and interactive extracurricular sessions led by top experts from academia and industry for keen and talented young people all around the UK.

    Credit: Tim Mitchell

The work that was instigated by Christopher Zeeman's Lectures and his own contribution to the Ri have left a legacy which today has a nationwide reach, with 140 Ri Masterclass series in locations as widespread as Aberdeen to Jersey. Our current Ri Mathematics Masterclass team share below what this legacy means to them.

'The first I heard of Sir Christopher’s work was as a mathematics student and science busker whilst at University in Newcastle. We had a demonstration called “Zeeman’s Ropes” in our busking repertoire which was a very popular and interactive way to introduce topology to audiences of all ages. Because of his legacy, we, as a Masterclasses team, are able to inspire a new generation of mathematicians.'
Rosie Mellors, London Mathematics Masterclass Coordinator 

'I believe the Masterclass programme adds something truly unique to the educational experiences of many young people across the country. This to me is Zeeman’s legacy; a programme that stretches to all corners of the UK, whose purpose and outcome is simply to capture young people’s imagination for mathematics, computer science and engineering and inspire in them an appreciation of these subjects that will stay with them for life.'
Zoe Griffiths, Primary Mathematics Masterclasses Coordinator 

'Without Sir Christopher’s passion and commitment, and without him to stand up and convince the BBC that mathematical proof is engaging and exciting enough for television, the Masterclass programme would probably not exist. I work with so many volunteers across the UK who are able to share their enthusiasm for mathematics and engaging young people in the STEM subjects thanks to what Christopher Zeeman started.'
Samantha Durbin, Clothworkers’ Associate in Mathematics

'I was an Ri Mathematics Masterclass series organiser in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 2013, attracting an extremely enthusiastic group of young mathematicians to the North Northumberland and Scottish Borders series in April 2013. This experience inspired me so much that I later became the Ri Clothworkers’ Fellow in Mathematics in April 2015.'
Bob Cresswell, Ri Clothworkers’ Fellow in Mathematics. 

'Christopher will be dearly missed. His support of the Mathematics Masterclass Programme was wonderful … We now have a group of supporters around the UK who understand that early ethos and have his will and determination to make sure it continues to grow and encourage young people in the art and love of mathematics.'
Diane Crann, Clothworkers' Fellow in Mathematics (2010-2015).

  • Ri Masterclasses aim to open the eyes of young people to the excitement, beauty and value of mathematics, engineering and computer science and in turn, inspire the next generation.

    Credit: Tim Mitchell

In 2016, the success of the Ri Masterclass Programme’s four national networks in reaching and engaging with able and motivated young people shows no sign of abatement, with in excess of 7000 students attending and enjoying their favoured subject, clocking up over 105,000 hours of extra-curricular contact time. 

‘Thank you for teaching me maths in a new light and enhancing my knowledge and self esteem about maths’
Year 9 Ri Mathematics Masterclass student

‘He already enjoyed maths, but the masterclasses gave him the other enjoyable perspectives on the wonder of maths in our everyday lives.’
Primary Ri Mathematics Masterclass parent

‘I feel very lucky to have been invited, the classes have extended my knowledge of the workings of maths and have helped build my confidence.’
Year 11 Ri Mathematics Masterclass student



Thank you to all who sent us their contributions to this blog post, not all of which could be represented here. 

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