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UVA mathematician stars in an ad for beer

Ken Ono shares his love of math through an ad for beer.
Ken Ono shares his love of math through an ad for beer.

Ken Ono has impressive academic credentials – head of the math department at the University of Virginia, an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, a PhD from UCLA, three books and more than 150 papers. But he’s also consulted actors Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, who starred in a film about a mathematical genius.

He’s helped competitive swimmers win Olympic medals and is, himself, a triathlete, so Ono didn’t think twice when he got a surprising invitation. A production company creating an ad for one of the nation’s top brewers wanted him.

“I received an e-mail from the casting director setting up a Zoom for 15 minutes later," he recalls. "They said, ‘Look, Miller Beer wants to do a math ad.’"

The reason -- Budweiser was about to launch Bud Light Next – a product with no carbs and only 80 calories.

“It turns out that for several years there was this beer on the shelves called Miller 64," he explains. "Their competitor is promoting an 80-calorie beer while they’ve got one that’s 16 calories better.”

Now you might think a prominent man in academia would turn his nose up at this invite. He’s not overweight, and he’s no fan of light beers.

“To be quite frank, I would rather drink an IPA with probably 200 calories,” he syas.

But Ono saw an opportunity.

“My job is to excite people with the wonders of mathematics. Mathematics is everywhere, and so I’ll take that challenge.”

Three days later he was driving to New Jersey with props from his own office to decorate the set.

“Introduce yourself,” says the spot’s narrator.

“I’m Ken Ono, and I’m a mathematician. I’m a world expert in number theory,” he replies.

“And why are you here today?” asks the narrator.

“I believe there’s an equation that you need my help with,” Ono says. “I'm known for solving Rumanujan's Partition Congruences. With collaborators I solved the Umbral Moonshine Conjecture and other problems in mathematics," he continues. "Mathematics is everywhere. It will play a very important role for advancing the human condition. I would like to restore the value in science and education.”

But to do that, a guy who likes dressing in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt would have to be schooled in fashion.

“My wardrobe specialist, my stylist, her name was Heather, and she dresses Trevor Noah,” he recalls. “She also worked for the new Sex in the City show, so although I tried on 3 dozen outfits, the most fun part about it wasn’t trying on the outfits. It was just getting all this inside gossip.”

Ono was a natural, shown striding into a classroom, speaking at a conference, solving equations in chalk, riding in the back of a limo, and typing on his laptop. He removes his glasses, cut to a close up of his thoughtful eyes, then to a wide shot of the scholar in front of a black board to speak his only scripted line.

“The moderator, who I learned later is the voice for Doritos – the deep voice – he asked me four or five dozen times, ‘So we’re having some trouble in determining the answer to this equation. What number is smaller? 80 or 64?'"

“64!’ says a puzzled Professor Ono.

The ad is airing on local TV stations and online. Ono doesn’t know if it’ll sell beer, but it’s made him a celebrity on campus, and he hopes it promotes new trust in education, science and math.

To watch the add go to https://news.virginia.edu/content/esteemed-uva-professor-stars-new-super-bowl-week-ad-campaign

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief