Harry Baker’s prime number poem inspires love for math

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Harry Baker at TEDxExeter

I have always been thrilled by math and its beauty (though that has hardly been reflected in my grades) and I have never been able to last a conversation about math with any of my friends for more than thirty seconds. Here’s how the conversation would be like:

“Hey! Did you know that 1 is not prime? Or when you draw prime numbers in a rectangular spiral they somehow connect diagonally?”

“Woooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwww. Fascinating…!”

And there, in an awkward silence, the conversation would die a natural death.

So it was providential that I stumbled upon slam poet, Harry Baker, reciting “prime time loving (the girl next door)”, to a TEDxExeter audience (Feb 2014).

Using fascinating wordplay, Baker deftly weaves a heartwarming story from the fundamental principles of mathematical prime numbers. The poem revolves around a simple concept that most of us are familiar with: a guy falls in love with his beautiful next-door-neighbour, and idealizes their relationship together. He soon realizes that they can never be together for they are too different from each other, and she thinks too highly of herself. Coming to terms with his disappointment, he eventually finds his true love — the girl-next-door-to-the-girl-next-door.

The mathematical bit is that the “guy” personifies the number 59, and the two “girls” are 60 (the perfect one) and 61 respectively.

It is really interesting how Baker involves the numbers in a common human relationship that simultaneously makes perfect mathematical sense. For example:

“While 59 admired 60’s ‘perfectly round’ figure,

60 thought 59 was… odd.

Baker’s genius is in making linguistic and mathematical puns work together so well, and so humorously. I could read this poem over and over again; revel in the warm fuzzies of the lurrrrve story; and encounter new mathematical epiphanies all at the same time, every time.

Not only does Baker make a mundane math concept interesting, the poem also serves as an inspiration to many. His poem effectively conveys to us that we do not have to be perfect to be happy, nor do we have to chase after the perfect situation or person that is always out of reach. When we recognise our own uniqueness and embrace each other’s differences, that is when we are truly happy.

Furthermore, I felt really connected with Baker’s narration. Although it was quite hard to get used to his rapid-fire style of speaking at first, when I noticed how much he invested his own emotions in reciting his poem, it resonated with me immediately. I almost teared at the last stanza; especially at this line:

“He told her the very definition of being prime

Was that with only one and himself could his heart divide.”

It is a beautiful poem and Baker is a mathematical poetic genius.

Perfection is an elusive goal which we seek in our studies; jobs; friends; and so on. As one disappointment after another pile up, it’s tempting to sink into despair, and not notice that in our pursuit of what we think we want, what we need may have been right there all along.

Perhaps it is time for me to love 61 too.

The transcript of “prime time loving (the girl next door)” can be found here.

Below is Harry Baker reciting “prime time loving (the girl next door)” and two other equally remarkable poems at TEDxExeter.