The man behind the maths - getting to know Marcus du Sautoy

Professor Marcus du Sautoy
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Professor Marcus du Sautoy
When it comes to contemporary mathematics, few names are as well-known as Professor Marcus du Sautoys. The Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science is also a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, President of the Mathematical Association, a best-selling author, a broadcaster, a playwright and an amateur musician and composer. The list of Professor du Sautoys ventures is as long as it is wide-ranging. As presenter of primetime television series such as BBC Twos The Code and BBC Fours The Story of Maths, co-presenter of Daves Dara Briain: School of Hard Sums, and author of titles such as The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey through Everyday Life and Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician's Journey Through Symmetry, Professor du Sautoy has done much to push his subject to the forefront of popular culture; a feat that might have seemed preposterous even a decade ago.

I want my discovery of new symmetrical objects to be written on my gravestone. For me, it was so exhilarating. It is like a drug when you discover something new because in mathematics, these things last forever. Once you have proved that something is true, it gives you a little bit of immortality.
Professor Marcus du Sautoy
After a packed day at ESOF 2012 in Dublin – during which Professor du Sautoy had delivered his keynote address, participated in a seminar on Turings legacy and taken part in numerous media interviews – I had expected to encounter a drained and weary mathematician. To my surprise however, I got to speak to a man whose enthusiastic visage seemed at odds with many of the faces that roamed the Convention Centre Dublin at seven oclock that evening. Encouraged by this, I set about trying to uncover the man behind the maths

Were you interested in maths from a young age, and if so, what first sparked your interest?
No, I wasnt interested in maths from a young age, and I think that this is really important to explain to people. You dont have to be some sort of calculating genius to become a mathematician. Up to the age of 13, I just didnt get the appeal. Multiplication tables were a little bit boring. It was only when a teacher showed me what maths was really about that I suddenly got turned on by the subject. He told me some of the big stories of maths and it just clicked. I think its a bit like learning a musical instrument. Doing your scales can be really boring, and if you come to think that thats all there is to music, youll stop playing. However, when you hear a fantastic piece of music, you realise what it is that youre heading towards.

I suppose that is quite an important point because young people develop at different speeds and have different interests
Exactly! My great bugbear about education is that at the age of 11, teachers decide whether a pupil is clever enough to go to this school or that school. There needs to be more flexibility within the system. People learn at different rates and in fact, there is some evidence to suggest that the later somebody develops, the more intelligent they end up being. The brain of an individual who develops later on is exposed to quite complex ideas, whereas a brain that develops too early doesnt meet these big ideas, so later development is good.

Do you think that this is a potential problem with the United Kingdoms education system, in which young people are asked to specify at quite an early age?
Yes, I think that this is an issue. Often, peoples tastes change and develop, and its hard to appreciate the connections that exist between subjects until you reach quite an advanced level. Limiting ones studies to three subjects at the age of 16 can be very restrictive. I think that we compartmentalise our education far too much. More fluidity between subjects within the education system – both up to 16 and beyond – would really help us to make progress.

On the other hand, I benefited from specialising fast because I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to become a mathematician so the chance to study maths, physics and chemistry at A-Level suited me.

Who or what inspires you?
Gosh! There are people who have inspired me mathematically; people like Christopher Zeeman who is a great populariser of maths as well as a great mathematician. Actually, somebody that I remember being a very inspiring figure was Jonathan Miller. He studied medicine originally but he also did a lot of theatre and art. I remember watching a programme when I was a kid called The Body in Question, but then I saw him doing other things like staging operas. Hes a really big thinker and the fact that one person was able to do multiple things successfully, was very appealing.

Maths is not always considered in as creative a way as perhaps it deserves to be, and there appears to be a somewhat prevalent view that it is quite a static subject – that the answers can be either right or wrong. Do you agree with this assertion, and do you think that the landscape of mathematics has altered during the course of your career?
Well, its interesting. I think that a lot of kids are drawn to mathematics because of the certainty that it provides. This is one of its charms actually; that you know when youve found the right answer. I think that in other humanities subjects, for example, you can write a fantastic essay yet somebody else can think that it doesnt answer the question. I actually like this sort of certainty.

However, I think that youre right about people having the impression that maths is a static subject, and its so not! Its an incredibly evolving and changing subject. The discoveries that we have made in the past dont change, but there are still so many things that we dont know. In fact, I gave a series of lectures for the Royal Institution called the Christmas Lectures aimed at children and I chose as my subject, the things that we dont know in mathematics. These are the questions that we need the next generation to answer. Simple things like prime numbers; you would expect us to understand those but we dont. They remain a big mystery.

Its really important to communicate that maths is an evolving, changing subject. I would say that the thing that has probably changed most during my career is that mathematicians now have more opportunities to tell people about the big stories. There is a growing appetite for, and an acceptance of, mathematics as entertainment. We made a three-part series about mathematics that aired on BBC Two primetime called The Code. The Dara Briain show that I co-host on Dave called The School of Hard Sums is a maths-comedy game show. I think that the climate is really different now than it was 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. We live in a great time to bring mathematical stories alive.

On a related subject, is Mr Briain really as good at mathematics as he appears to be on The School of Hard Sums?
Yes, hes really good. I was very impressed. We gave him homework to warm him up because he hasnt done the maths for 20 years or more, but he has a real passion for it. He cared about getting the answers out and I think that that is what people really appreciated when watching the programme. They could see when he got it right how much it meant to him, and when he got it wrong, how devastated he was. I think this is as good a message as the mathematics itself. Dara is a true member of the nerd gang.

On a personal note, what has been your biggest challenge to date?
[Long pause] The conjecture that I cannot solve. [Raises fist to mouth] Mathematical challenges are some of the biggest challenges that Ive faced and I want to know the answers. The conjecture that I am trying to prove might be true or it might be false. I think its true but I have been proved wrong by PhD students in the past. I think that mathematics is exciting because it is tough. Easy things get boring but the really challenging things maintain your interest. There have been lots of other challenging things in my life, but I dont think that anything quite beats this conjecture. Ive been working on it for 15 years and I still havent got it.

I assume that the desire to solve such problems never goes away
No, and I think that this actually leads to longevity. There are a lot of examples of mathematicians living to grand old ages. I think that they just want to know what the answer is, and so they hang around for as long as possible.

And also, this presents a challenge for younger generations
Thats right. There is something quite inspiring about having PhD students. They are a bit like your children; your mathematical children. Its a very proud moment when one of my students shows me something new.

Although I bet that they are nervous before telling you
Yes, especially when they show me that something Ive been working on was wrong.

Of which of your achievements are you most proud?
Again, it is mathematical. I want my discovery of new symmetrical objects to be written on my gravestone. For me, it was so exhilarating. It is like a drug when you discover something new because in mathematics, these things last forever. Once you have proved that something is true, it gives you a little bit of immortality. In fact, I have a project. As I discovered a lot of these things – well, infinitely many of these things – not all of them have names. In order to raise money for charity, I am naming some of these symmetrical objects after people who donate to the charity that I support.

I see. So where can people get involved with this project?
If they follow the link 'Naming Symmetries for Charity' on the Mathematical Institutes website, they can have their own little piece of immortality, care of my symmetrical objects.

Obviously, the popularisation of mathematics and science is a vital issue for you. Can you just expand on why it is so important to pursue this course and to encourage future generations of mathematicians and scientists?
For me, its a slightly selfish thing. I spend my life doing something that I find absolutely thrilling and exciting. When you make a mathematical discovery, it only starts to live when you tell somebody else about it. If you keep it to yourself, it doesnt have chance to breathe. To give birth to mathematics you need to communicate it. This is absolutely essential. Communication is part of the process of doing science.

Its also really important for us to have a mathematically literate society, because mathematics is the language of science. If people need to understand the science in order to engage in political debate, without this language, they are disenfranchised.

Also, the scientific community needs to ask where its next generation is going to come from. It will come from kids who have been inspired by seeing exciting science, so it is up to us – the generation in place at the moment – to excite our successors. There are so many reasons why effective communication is important. I think that universities and governments have woken up to the necessity of dialogue from the scientific community, which is why I have a Chair in the Public Understanding of Science. It gives me the platform to do that.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me today Professor du Sautoy

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