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1 June 2022

Hannah Fry’s Q&A: “Pull handles on push doors make me feel like an idiot”

The mathematician discusses why Michael Schumacher is her hero, and her love for the 1990s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

By New Statesman

Hannah Fry was born in Harlow in 1984. She is a professor in the mathematics of cities at University College London and a podcast presenter whose shows include The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was in playschool and there was a woman looking after us who had blue eyeshadow on, all the way up to her eyebrows. I clearly remember looking at her eyes and thinking: what is going on there?

Who are your heroes?

As a child it was Michael Schumacher because he was totally committed to his goal, which I thought was very impressive. As an adult: Jess Phillips. She doesn’t take any shit but is genuinely trying to leave the world better than she found it.

[See also: Hannah Gadsby’s Q&A: “My hero? There’s a tree in my yard that I’m quite fond of”]

What book last changed your thinking?

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Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, which includes the idea that for most of human history death has been a part of life. It’s only in the last couple of generations that we’ve had the luxury of not being surrounded by it at all times. By not having death ever present, we are more scared of it.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Rory Stewart. I don’t agree with him on everything, but he approaches debate with real respect and empathy.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I just got back from Las Vegas. In the 1950s, because the city is quite close to the Hoover Dam, it had access to limitless electricity, which is why residents started putting neon lights up everywhere. I really love the idea of going there in the Fifties and it feeling like nowhere else on Earth.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The Formula One career of Michael Schumacher – I mean, ask me anything. I know all of it like the back of my hand.

What TV show could you not live without?

The 1990s BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It’s my comfort blanket. The on-screen chemistry between the two main actors is amazing. Colin Firth is so hot in it.

Who would paint your portrait?

MC Escher. I love the way he plays with dimensions and impossible spaces.

What’s your theme tune?

“Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble” by PJ & Duncan, which is the first record I bought.

[See also: Leïla Slimani’s Q&A: “I smoke too much and I can’t stand it any more”]

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Lauren Laverne told me: “The days are long but the years are short.” When I’ve got a screaming child and a deadline to meet, I imagine that it’s ten years in the future, and think about what I would give to be back where I am now.

What’s currently bugging you?

Pull handles on push doors. I feel like an idiot every single time. But it’s the design of the door. It’s stupid. And rude.

What single thing would make your life better?

Getting up earlier. I’m envious of those people who are on time in the morning. I think those people are superior.

When were you happiest?

Now. I had cancer last year. I’ve come out the other side of it and the little things that used to stress me out just don’t bother me. 

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A beautician, which is what I wanted to be when I was 14. I still remain obsessed with doing my make-up and hair.

Are we all doomed?

I like to think that civilisation is going through a period of teenage angst. I hope that over time we’ll come through the other side and mature into a much more decent society.

“Making Sense of Cancer with Hannah Fry” is available on BBC iPlayer

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special