Last week I spoke with Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford mathematician and author of numerous popular science books, for CultureNorthernIreland. As well as proselytizing about science as the new Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science (taking over from Richard Dawkins), he’s a keen footballer, musician and actor…but maths remains his one true love:
It was never cool in school, but maths is finally getting the cred it deserves. From A Beautiful Mind, which starred Russell Crowe as game theory specialist John Nash, to Michael Frayn’s story of the birth of quantum physics in Copenhagen, numbers are big bucks at the box office. Heck, even as I write this I’m listening to the maths driven glitches and loops of electronica stalwarts Autechre.
One man who understands numbers, and their potency, better than most is Marcus du Sautoy. The 44-year old is professor of mathematics at Oxford and one of the discipline’s most vocal and articulate proponents.
‘I think there is a fascination with the power of mathematics,’ the mathematician explains, speaking ahead of his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
‘It is a powerful, almost mystical language, and people are in awe of it because of its power to make predictions. If you look at Google, for example, it works on very powerful mathematics to throw up searches so fast that it almost seems like magic.’
Garrulous, friendly and deeply passionate about his profession it is a hard to imagine a better ambassador for maths than du Sautoy. Whether chatting to Richard Bacon on BBC Radio 5 Live or writing in The Guardian and The Independent he has consistently explained difficult, abstract concepts to the hoi polloi in a way few of his peers can.
Du Sautoy is also the author of numerous popular science books including The Music of the Primes and Finding Moonshine. His latest work, The Numb8r My5teries (yes, that is the correct spelling), was released earlier this year and deals with the thorny subject of symmetry – something I confess to know little about.
‘Symmetry expresses internal relations in an object,’ du Sautoy says, not exactly illuminating the concept. ‘Something has symmetry if there are more moves that you can make to it and it looks like the same.’
‘Like a Rubik’s cube?’ I volunteer.
Finally I’m beginning to follow. Apparently there are 25 digits in the number of symmetries it is possible to make with one of professor Erno Rubik’s ingenious moulded plastic blocks. ‘The amazing thing is that it only takes 17 moves to get back to the original state from any one of these symmetries,’ he remarks.
All very interesting, but what does it mean for our daily lives? Are symmetries really important? ‘It’s part of evolution to recognise symmetries. When you think about being in the jungle trying to survive if you see something with symmetry then it was likely to be an animal that would either eat you or that you could eat. So it’s pretty vital.’
Symmetries may be du Sautoy’s current squeeze but prime numbers remain his one true love. ‘They are the most important numbers because they are the building blocks of our universe,’ he says.
One number that has long enthralled Du Sautoy – and aficionados of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – is 42. As he explains, 42 might just be the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’ after all.
‘Forty-two is not a prime number but it has given us a hint that a clue to understanding prime numbers is something deep in physics.’ The venerable mathematician correctly interprets my silence on the line as lack of comprehension, turning to metaphor to clarify his point: ‘It’s a little like an archaeologist who sees patterns in Egypt and then goes off to South America and sees the same patterns there and begins to make links and connections.’
Building links between seemingly disparate lands is integral to du Sautoy’s other job, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Since becoming only the second holder of this prestigious post, succeeding the colourful Richard Dawkins in October 2008, du Sautoy has worked tirelessly to ensure that ‘science and society talk to one another’.
‘To have a mathematically literate society is integral to our future – I think even Gordon Brown is starting to realise that a scientifically literate society is the key to a robust economy,’ he says.
Marcus du Sautoy is a man with a mission, to show the world the blinding light of science, whether they like it or not.
‘Sometimes we forgot that people like being exposed to difficult ideas. We molly-coddle them too much.
‘In my talks and my books I basically say “I’m going to push you. You’re not going to understand it all but you will get something out of it.” That’s the secret.’