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Art Benjamin on The Colbert Report


Art Benjamin, former co-editor of Math Horizons and resident mathemagician at Harvey Mudd College, was the latest scientist to spar with late night fake news talk show host Stephen Colbert on Wednesday's episode of The Colbert Report.

The interview covered statistics, Benjamin's favorite number, education, and the beauty of mathematics. Colbert didn't pull any punches. In between asking ridiculous questions such as which numbers are conservative and which are liberal, he surprised Benjamin with several math problems and even had a calculator at the ready to verify Benjamin's answers.

Watch the clip of Art Benjamin's interview on The Colbert Report here.

On Thursday morning, MAA talked to Benjamin on his way to the airport in New York.

How did you think the interview went?

Benjamin: "I guess I'd call it a success. My big fear was that I'd screw up on national television, and since I didn’t majorly screw up or make a fool of myself, I'd call that a success. My big worry was that he'd give me problems that I couldn't do or I'd get an answer wrong.

Luckily (laughs) I got all the answers right, considering I didn't know what any of the questions were going to be in advance. The producer went through a practice interview with me, but almost none of the questions the producer asked me were questions that Colbert asked me.

The number one rule they told me was don't try to be funny. I watched a few episodes of the show beforehand, and the guests almost always play it straight. So even though he was saying things about whether numbers were conservative or liberal  or what math and sex have to do with each other or crazy questions like that–I mean a million things were going through my head, but I just played it straight and tried to look perplexed. "

I was nervous, but it was only after the program that I collapsed with an "ah thank goodness!"

What was Colbert like off camera?

B: "Before the show started he came to me in the green room to make sure I knew what his character was like, that he's not that way in person. He was pleased that I'd seen the show before and told me to just have fun and relax."

Benjamin said he got to watch Colbert do a Q&A with the audience before the show, telling them to ask him anything. It's a chance for the audience to interact with the human Stephen Colbert and not the buffoonish character he plays on TV.

"The questions were really pretty challenging," Benjamin said, "ranging from serious, like why aren't you more harsh with the military and our current occupation, to irreverent questions like who would you rather kill: Bambi or Winnie the Pooh?"

Did you tell your students that you would be on the show?

B: "I told my students last week that I'd be on the show. I got an enormous amount of street cred for doing it. I think more so than if I said I would be on The Tonight Show. I've gotten some emails already today and they were positive. I started coming down with laryngitis a few days before the interview. America probably wouldn’t know what I sound like, but my friends and family noticed I was sick."

We posted the interview clip on our Facebook page and some members responded. One mentioned that in the interview you discussed the correlation between the number of math courses taken in college and future income, but you didn't specify whether or not you actually had to pass those courses.

B: (laughs) "Well I guess it probably means courses you passed. I don’t think anyone, as a get rich quick scheme would sign up for a bunch of math classes and then not take them seriously."

Were you really the first mathematician they have had on the show?

B: "I was the first guest who was interviewed as a mathematician. They had Brian Greene on the show, who's a mathematician and a physicist, and they interviewed him as a physicist. I'm pleased MAA and AMS were happy about math getting good press, and I hoped I wouldn't let them down. There was so much more to say, but a very short time to say it."

Benjamin is currently on his way to Virginia. He will be performing "Mathemagics" tonight (Thursday) at Radford University and will be featured on the Virginia Tech-sponsored kids show, Kids' Tech University, on Saturday.

Benjamin received the MAA's Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award in 2000. The award honors college or university teachers widely recognized as being exceedingly successful and whose teaching has influence beyond their own institutions.

He was named "America's Best Math Whiz" in 2005 by Reader's Digest. In 2006, he was awarded the MAA's Beckenbach Book Prize for his book Proofs that Really Count: The Art of Combinatorial Proof (review here). His book was also awarded the CHOICE award in 2004 from the American Library Association.

He has written more than 70 research papers and authored four books. His most recent books are Secrets of Mental Math, published by Random House, and Biscuits of Number Theory (available here), published by the MAA. In 2007 and 2009, he created DVD courses on The Joy of Mathematics and Discrete Mathematics for The Teaching Company as part of their Great Courses series.

The Colbert Report is an American satirical late night television show that airs Monday through Thursday on Comedy Central. It stars political humorist Stephen Colbert, a former correspondent for The Daily Show. Launched on October 17, 2005, the series has garnered a prestigious Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting in 2008 and 15 Primetime Emmy nominations. Last fall, Colbert and his writing team won the show's first Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program.

Images courtesy of Benjamin's homepage and Wikipedia.


Art with Stephen Colbert post-interview


News Date: 
Thursday, January 28, 2010