The Nutty Professor: Tim Chartier

Davidson professor combines math with mime
Professor Tim Chartier uses mime to illustrate mathematical concepts.

Tim Chartier is a mathematician and a mime. Students fill auditoriums around the country to see him put on a clown nose and use toilet plungers to illustrate the concept of a remainder, or wrestle with an imaginary rope to discuss the concept of infinity. In April, the Davidson College professor performed in a mime show at the National Mall for the first National Math Festival. Here, he shares his thoughts about the poetry of math, the illness that nearly left him paralyzed, and how two kinds of infinity changed his career.  

SOMETIMES PEOPLE comment that I’m a different kind of mathematician. That was partly caused by a very serious illness I had when I was young: When I was 11, I had three flus at the same time, and it affected my vestibular nerve. I was paralyzed from the waist down for about six months; then I was functionally paralyzed from the neck down and hospitalized for almost two months. I was on a cane and a walker through seventh grade. While I recovered, I was so incredibly weak that I was at home all the time. Being trapped inside forced me to be creative.  

I went into college with the intent of being a theater major, but then I took a mathematical proofs class. The professor worked through a proof showing that there’s more than one size of infinity, “big” and “bigger big.” I still remember exactly where I was—a classroom at Western Michigan University, second row in the middle. When the professor wrote the proof on the board, it just blew my mind. I thought, “Wait a minute, this is something I could enjoy.” 

I realized that a mathematical proof could be art. There was an aestheticism to it. Like poetry, you could be succinct, and there were multiple ways to do it. So in time, I dropped the idea of being a theater major and became a math major. 

Even while I was majoring in math, I always took at least one dance class each year. After college, while I was getting my PhD, I trained with the mime Marcel Marceau while he was doing a show on Broadway. Right before I got my PhD, my wife and I thought about going into performance full-time. But it didn’t feel like the right choice.

It was a scary decision to pursue my math career. I was afraid that I would no longer be an artist, that art would go out of my life. This is particularly true in math, a field where there aren’t a whole lot of performing artists. 

But after I came to Davidson in 2003, I found a way to combine math and performance. The mime show introduces such ideas as infinity, remainder, and even concepts like modeling the path of a ball.  What happens when you pull on an infinite rope? 

When I decided to do shows at local schools combining mime and math, it was a practical decision. I thought it would count as outreach for my job as a professor, and I could get funding. I expected to get a grant in two or three years, but they just said, “Okay, we’ll give you funding. When can you start?” 

Within a year, I was performing at Discovery Place, and within two years I was performing around the country. There have been some great moments. One time at the University of Wisconsin, a professor introducing me said, “I don’t actually know what he does … but we figure if anyone has the gall to do mime and math, we ought to bring him in!” 

Finding the whimsy in math is delightful to me, because you can get people who don’t like math to engage with it. The fact that I do mime and that I make mosaics with M&M’s shows that there’s still that 10-year-old inside me. —As told to Jonathan Cox

Categories: Quick Reads, The Buzz