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Thursday, February 25, 2021
Makin Mattresses
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Take 5: Lily Serna

Widely known for co-hosting SBS’s Letters and Numbers, Lily Serna is one of Australia’s best known mathematicians. Alongside her TV work, Serna is a champion for women in STEM, and sits on the advisory council of Questacon. Serna’s new book, Curious, published by Macmillan Australia, $29.99, is out now.

1 Curious is full of maths-based life hacks. When have you applied maths in life to great benefit?

One of the things in the book is a maths theorem called optimal stopping, which is a really good framework to make a choice when you’ve got heaps of options. For the first third of what you’re looking at, observe, but don’t make a choice. This establishes a baseline. From there onward, go for anything you see that outperforms the baseline.

2 This is your second book. What did you learn from writing the first that made number two easier?

The first book was more or less comprised of puzzles I’d made up, so it was a much easier process. In this book, I not only share life hacks through mathematically proven strategies, but it’s interwoven with stories from my life, so it was a completely different process. It took over a year to write.

3 How do you go about writing a book that’s both broadly accessible yet interesting to those with a passion for maths?

This is a series of maths-related facts I’d come across that I really wanted to share. If there was anything too heavy, I pretended I had someone next to me from a completely different field and tried to explain it in a non-intimidating way.

4 When did you decide to pursue a career in mathematics?

It wasn’t an a-ha moment. In hindsight, I can see the points that led me to this particular path. As a kid, I was really encouraged to pursue my natural instinct in the subject. At the end of high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but everyone says do something you love, so I decided to study maths.

5 You sit on the advisory council of the Canberra icon, Questacon. What’s that like?

This is my second month as part of the advisory group; I’m brand new and I can’t tell you how excited I was when I got that call. Whenever I’m in Canberra and have a few free hours, I get there. It’s such a wonderful Australian institution that presents science in a really creative way, and I can’t wait to contribute to that.

Serna’s answers have been condensed for publication.

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