Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Thomas Jordan

This Interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Thomas Jordan is a Lecturer in Mathematics. His BoB Lecture ‘How Can Mathematics Improve Your Baking?’ will examine how a complex dynamical systems theory could be applied to our home baking skills. I caught up with Thomas to talk about his maths research, as well as his academic journey…

This picture was taken by Corrie on the 1st March in Howard House Math’s Common Room .

When you were a student, did you know you were going to become an academic in your field?

So… I come from a family of mathematicians, both my parents are mathematicians, my older brother is also a mathematician.

To be honest, I never really plan to get into mathematics, until I realised it was the subject I enjoyed the most at school and at university. As I got more invested in my degree, I particularly enjoyed  the pure side of maths. From there, I just went into a PhD and drifted down into the academic route.

There never was a specific time when I thought  ‘I’m definitely going to be an academic!’

Did you ever feel stressed when you were doing your PhD?

I certainly did.  When you’re trying to come up with original problems in maths, about 95% of work is realizing how stupid you are…Realizing that what you’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks doesn’t work at all is a very standard experience as a mathematician.

It’s challenging because anybody researching maths can at some point feel they’re not good enough or that what they’re doing isn’t actually relevant after all… All of these issues can come up when studying the subject, it’s difficult. Of course, that’s stressful, but you kind of go along with it! You have to remember not to be discouraged.

Do you think students tend to worry too much about the future?

I think you should look ahead and think about the future. But if you’re enjoying what you’re doing at the moment, then things do tend to work out and fall into place.

What do you think of the balance between your maths research and teaching?

It’s important to have a balance between researching and teaching. As I said, Maths research can be rewarding when it works out, but a lot of the time, it doesn’t. So, to have something more concrete to do is also extremely satisfying. Teaching does provide that.

I’d also say it’s very rewarding when you have students you see graduate, growing in confidence, going on to be successful through their time at university… It’s the most rewarding thing you experience as an academic.

Do you know all of your students by name?

No *laughs*

Do you try to remember your students names as much as possible?

So, when I’m teaching in smaller groups, I try to learn their names. I mean, when I’m teaching first-year lectures, where there are around 350 students, it’s impossible to know! You basically have certain faces and students you recognize. You will also occasionally meet with students who obviously know who I am, but I have no idea who they are… When that happens,  I then tend to assume that they’re probably a first year Maths student.

Do you remember who your favorite professor at university?

Yeah a couple!  I was s a student at St. Andrews. Dr.  Nik Ruskuc and Dr. Lars Olsen were a big influence on me. They were both very engaging lecturers. Both of them knew everybody in the class by name. They also always encouraged you to go beyond the standard curriculum and spend time working on harder problems beyond the syllabus, it was not about setting material around an exam.

What’s the most surprising thing that you learned about teaching and mass or anything?

I’m trying to think… Plenty of things have surprised me.

I think one thing is that when lecturing Maths, you can be better when you do ‘live’ calculations and risk making mistakes rather than being overly prepared.

If you over-prepare, you can make things look too easy and you don’t really get a clear idea of how you think about problems or calculations. You don’t reflect. if you actually think about it, you actually think about how you learn and practice math beyond what’s provided from reading a textbook.

That goes for every subject I think. You have to think about how you know what you know.

So, how did you make this connection between your research in Maths and Baking?

When I got the invitation to give my Best of Bristol Lecture, it came with a topic suggested by the students.  I thought it was a bit of a joke at first… the subject was cooking! Then I decided I would actually go ahead with that topic. In the area that I work – dynamical systems – there is something called the ‘Baker’s Map’, which is a system named after the process of kneading dough … It’s a bit complicated to explain but, hopefully, the content of my lecture will make a good ‘general audience’ talk.

You told me earlier that your favorite thing to bake was chocolate cake and that the secret ingredient was good chocolate. Are there other baking secrets you can share?

There’s one thing I like to bake: a dark chocolate cake that has Guinness in it. People love it, but I usually can’t tell them I made it with Guinness because that puts them off. I don’t usually tell people about that secret ingredient… I mean, between good chocolate and Guinness, good chocolate always wins people over!

Are there other things besides Baking that you do to relax?

I really like going hiking. Going on a weekend hiking trip is definitely a good way to relax.

What’s your favorite hiking spot around here?

I love going to  Quantocks, Mendips and  Abergavenny. You can actually take a bus there! And the bus tours halfway between Taunton and Minehead. The route is beautiful.

Come to Dr. Thomas Jordan’s BoB Lecture on the 14th of March at Orchard Heights! You can learn more about the talk right here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1959251517715752


The oral transcription was edited for the readers.


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