Worrall and Kirschenbaum ’08 talk Tycho Brahe on podcast

Ayesha Sen, Staff Writer

“Charles Worrall, give me a name,” Benjamin Kirschenbaum ’08 said on his podcast “Give Me A Name” that featured Upper Division math teacher Charles Worrall last Tuesday. “Tycho Brahe,” Worrall responded. The two spent the episode on Brahe, a 16th-century Danish mathematician and astronomer.

Kirschenbaum reached out to Worrall over email and explained the podcast’s format, Worrall said. In each episode, a guest chooses a historical figure they find interesting and know a lot about to discuss with Kirschenbaum for an hour. While the podcast initially focused on comedians, Kirschenbaum has recently invited people such as Worrall who know more about various academic subjects.

When Kirschenbaum first asked him about the podcast, Worrall deliberated saying no, Worrall said. “I’m busy and tired and there’s just a lot going on with the pandemic,” he said. “But then the more I thought about it, I realized that I really do like talking to people about fun things that I enjoy so I thought ‘what the heck, I’m going to say yes,’ which was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad I did it.”

Kirschenbaum then instructed Worrall to select a historical figure to discuss, Worrall said. “While I was brainstorming, I could think of four or five or six mathematicians from history who I knew some stuff about,” he said. “I don’t know as much as an actual historian, but I did know quite a bit about them and I knew a couple of fun stories about Tycho Brahe, so I suggested it, and Benji agreed.”

During the Zoom conversation, Kirschenbaum began by introducing Worrall and their personal history together and letting Worrall speak about himself as well. Kirschenbaum credits Worrall with helping him discover his love for math after a more difficult experience in eighth grade honors math, Kirschenbaum said in the episode. “I was debating whether or not to take the honors class in ninth grade, and I decided why not, I could always drop out,” he said. “And Mr. Worrall was my teacher and completely changed my interest in math, and I went on to study it in college and that is largely thanks to the person that I am talking to today.”

Shortly after, Kirschenbaum introduced Brahe to the listeners. As Kirschenbaum explained during the episode, although Brahe is described as an astronomer, the title of being an “astronomer” or “scientist” in the 16th century was strikingly different from current understandings. “He was super into astrology and religion and alchemy,” Kirschenbaum said. 

For the rest of the episode, Kirschenbaum discussed Brahe’s life chronologically, first introducing Brahe’s youth and then transitioning to his adulthood, highlighting his key achievements and discoveries, Worrall said. “Then, within each of these transitions, [Kirschenbaum] would pause and let me talk about some of those parts, putting in my own thoughts and stories.”

While Worrall and Kirschenbaum did not prepare a script, they both did more research on Brahe, Worrall said. “I discussed him in college quite a bit but I definitely was no expert, so I got a biography of him and crammed,” he said. “It was very fun because Ben had also done some of his own research, which took him in different directions than me,” he said.

For example, Kirschenbaum came across scholarly speculation that Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” took plot points from Brahe’s life, which was something Worrall had not noticed, he said. Kirschenbaum found that Shakespeare wrote“Hamlet” around the time of Brahe’s death and Brahe had family members named “Rosencrantz” and “Guildenstern,” which are character names in the play. 

Although the recording ran smoothly, Worrall was worried that he might run out of things to say, he said. “Students get nervous about their presentations in school and as a teacher, I never run out of things to say because I know my subject matter so well,” he said. “But, even though I love Brahe, this wasn’t my subject matter, so I was scared. It turned out I had researched enough and so I felt comfortable in the moment, but I was really nervous that I wouldn’t have enough to say.” 

Since recording the episode, Worrall has thought more about the intersection of history, math, and science, and the ways in which he can explore the three subjects together in the future, he said. Ever since he took a class on astronomy and cosmology in his senior year of college, Worrall has been very interested in the history of science and mathematics, doing his own research in his free time and even incorporating it into some of his classes, he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to do more podcasts, but I do think this has rekindled my love for the topic, which is really nice to experience.”

In fact, participating in Kirschenbaum’s podcast has inspired Worrall to consider bringing the history of math and science to the school, he said. “Maybe at some point, I’m going to teach a class in the math department that’s more closely connected to the history of mathematics than things that I’ve taught before,” he said. “Nothing’s confirmed, but it’s definitely something I want to play around with.”

Participating in the episode was amusing and beneficial, but Worrall’s favorite part of the podcast was reconnecting with his past student, he said. “That was super nice to have had that relationship form and now it has continued for 15 years,” he said. “This experience has made me feel very close to Ben in a way that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t called me up.”