Kevin Buzzard is a professor of Pure Mathematics at Imperial College London. His website includes links to computer games written by his children, “research-related stuff”, a link to a picture of a pelican labelled “automorphic forms” in an attempt to fool Google and several lists of junk. Wikipedia records his favourite number (see below) and lists the prizes he has won for his research: his students, meanwhile, report that he is notorious for wearing flamboyant trousers (see below).
What kind of pupil were you like at school?
At primary school I was bored and disruptive. At secondary school I was much more inspired and in general I stayed in line.
What did you do at school when you weren't in lessons?
Up until year 10 or so I think I played football almost every lunch time, as did pretty much everyone else (I went to an all boys school). After that I started doing more "intellectual" stuff -- I would often play card games like whist and variants, and then when our school got a computer room I spent a lot of time in there (mostly figuring out how to watch network traffic go by and hence see everyone's password -- those early networks had never even heard of security).
Do you remember any wonderful lessons from school?
I don't have a memory of a stand-out lesson but I remember a stand-out maths teacher who knew how to teach me. I was completely on top of the stuff we were supposed to be learning, but this teacher had a huge stock of "stinker" questions (remember this was before the www so finding interesting maths questions was much harder to do) and he would dish some out to me to keep me occupied.
"Factorize x4+y4+z4-2x2y2-2y2z2-2z2x2" was one of them; that took me forever, and the fact that I can still remember the polynomial is some indication of how interesting I found the question.
Nowadays there are websites which will factor it -- I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
What was the best thing about being an undergraduate?
The material we were supposed to learn was, for the first time in my life, really hard, and that made it really interesting. And also for the first time in my life I was around a lot of people who knew far more mathematics than I did -- this meant I could suddenly learn a lot more efficiently.
What was the most interesting topic you studied in your first year at Cambridge?
Basically all of the abstract structural stuff -- stuff like a rigorous definition of the limit of a sequence, and the definition of an abstract group. I had never seen anything like this before in my life.
How was life at Trinity College different from life for undergraduates at Imperial College?
Cambridge is a far more boring place to live than London, but on the other hand perhaps fewer distractions gives you more time to focus on mathematics!
What is algebraic number theory?
It started off being the study of solving polynomial equations in whole numbers, but that turned out to be a really deep problem and nowadays it seems to be about using tools from all over pure mathematics to try and build new tools to help.
Where was the photo of the Automorphic Forms pelican taken?
I got it from stumbleupon (remember that?) and I have no idea where it came from.
What is the most important lesson you've learned since leaving school?
Don't go to bed if you still have an unresolved disagreement with another human being. I'm not sure everyone can or should operate like that but it's how I like to operate.
If you could give one piece of advice to your sixteen-year old self what would it be?
I'm not sure he needed any advice and I'm not sure he would have listened anyway. Looking back, he seemed to manage OK.
If you weren't a professional mathematician, what job would you like to have?
I have never been any good at anything except mathematics. I would probably be living in a cardboard box under Waterloo Bridge if I weren't a professional mathematician.
Do you have a second favourite number (Wikipedia records your favourite number as 65537)
Do you have a favourite item of clothing?
I got several pairs of really ridiculous trousers for Christmas. I have to teach a compulsory algebra course to 250 undergraduates, and of course a big difference between uni and school is that at uni you don't actually have to go to the lectures! I think it's helpful to have something which sets you apart from a generic guy in a suit so I always wear really stupid brightly coloured trousers, basically as some sort of a stamp of individuality. The students always comment on them in the feedback forms we give them -- they are clearly a talking point. I guess most of them just assume it's because I have very poor taste in trousers but actually it's a trick to make them think about me and hence my course and hence algebra.
Why should anyone study Mathematics?
People in general can be quite woolly in their thinking. Mathematics teaches you how to think in a really pedantic logical manner. This is not always appropriate in real-world situations (e.g. in an emotionally-charged situation), but sometimes it is, and clarity of thought in these positions can be what puts you ahead of the rest.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
I have three kids now and the vast majority of my time goes into bringing them up. When they're not around I have been known to play computer games completely obsessively until they are solved 100% (e.g. I've played essentially every Zelda game to completion) but in general if the kids are in bed I might well turn back to a maths paper...
If you could spend six months working at any University in the world where would you go?
Imperial. Or, if I had to change, Kings or UCL. I love London. London has a really large and prestigious number theory community at the minute and I find it a very inspirational place both academically and for other reasons. In the last Research Assessment Exercise Imperial beat both Oxford and Cambridge in pure mathematics. I have three kids now and if I went off to a prestigious university in another country then I would either have to take my kids out of school (which would be massively disruptive) or go without them (which would break my heart).
Do you have any ambitions left to achieve? If so, what would they be?
I am not sure I ever had any ambitions. I just kept doing the one thing I was good at and here I am. Maybe my main life goals now are to help my kids become the best that they can be.
What question should we have asked you that we haven't?
"What do you do when no-one else is watching?"