Everything you wanted to know about ... secrets of maths

Jun 29, 2012

Interviewing Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford
Everything you wanted to know about ... secrets of maths

Current holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, he plays football in a team where everybody wears a prime number in his shirt. He has been able to bring together more than one million viewers speaking on a subject he is passionate about: Mathematics.

Well known through his popular BBC TV series 'The Story of Maths ‘, Marcus du Sautoy creates programmes to teach science using the Internet and even urban guided tours revealing the maths hidden in the buildings. He unveils the relationships between art and mathematics and understands symmetry as the language of mathematics, always present in nature. He has a key to success when speaking about science: he knows how to entertain an audience telling fantastic stories. As for example the fascinating mystery of prime numbers. For someone who defines mathematics as the search for patterns, the question is whether there is any pattern explaining those indivisible numbers.

2.000 years ago and more, ancient Greeks proved that prime numbers have no end. In fact the biggest prime number ever calculated has almost 13 million digits. There are of outmost importance because all numbers are the result of multiplying prime numbers together. Also intriguing is its connection with quantum physics: It has been found that certain patterns in the energy levels of the larger atoms, such as Uranium, share properties with certain patterns of prime numbers....

But the mystery of prime numbers does not stop here: Marcus du Sautoy's football team promoted when all of its players wore t-shirts having prime numbers on them, inspired in Raúl's 7 or Zidane's 5.

What would you say is the Mathematician's secret?

The title of the talk refers to the fact that many artists think very mathematically without realising it. The structures they are drawn to for purely aesthetic reasons are also interesting from a mathematical perspective. The artists that I profiled in the talk are my secret mathematicians. Perhaps the Mathematician's Secret is the converse of this. Although mathematics is often regarded as a very utilitarian subject, helping to build bridges or create new technology, the motivation for the mathematician is to create something beautiful and surprising. They are driven by the same desire as the artist.
Within the creative process – you claim- there are mathematical ideas, and mathematicians are often guided by strong aesthetic values

How would you define the relationship between art and mathematics?

I think that as mathematicians we make many choices about what we create and invent. Those choices are often driven by aesthetic as much as utilitarian considerations. What is beautiful in mathematics is often a similar aesthetic to the one that motivates artistic creation. A proof is like a piece of music. It starts by laying out themes that twist and turn as the proof develops until a moment of transformation and revelation as the conclusion of the theorem begins to emerge from the twisting turning mathematics. Often it a surprising twist that creates a moment of unexpected tension that makes a piece of mathematics exciting, the same sort of shift that makes a piece of music special.

What are the mathematical ideas behind the work of Borges and Dalí, Messiaen and Laban?

The fascinating thing is that sometimes these artists are deliberately choosing to exploit mathematical ideas to achieve an artistic goal. But other times they are simply drawn to a structure for artistic reasons that in retrospect has a mathematical quality.


When did your love affair with Mathematics began?

I started to fall in love with mathematics around the age of 13 when my mathematics teacher at school took me aside and recommended some books that he thought would show me what mathematics was really about. It was like someone playing me a Beethoven sonata or taking me to my first Shakespeare play. I suddenly realised mathematics was full of fantastic stories and that the mathematics that we were learning in school was the vocabulary and grammar to be able to appreciate those stories.

Many people say 'I'm not good at Maths'. However when we find out that 1×1=1, 11×11=121, 111×111=12321, 1111×1111=1234321, 11111×11111 equals 123454321 this really arouses our curiosity, it’s fascinating. The same, too for Fibonacci's Succession 1,1,2,3,5,8… Which curiosity or mathematic formula is your favorite?

My favourite sequence of numbers are the primes. 2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19, 23... Stretching off to infinity, these indivisible numbers at the most fundametnal in mathematics. Yet trying to find a pattern that helps you to predict where to find the next prime is one of the biggest mysteries of mathematics. The most intriguing recent development is a connection with quantum physics. Certain patterns that are hidden in the primes look remarkably like patterns at the heart of energy levels of the nucleus of large atoms like uranium. It is possible that the same mathematics that explains quantum physics might be the mathematics we need to crack the enigma of the primes.

In your last book you state that symmetry is the language of mathematics. What does this mean and where do we find symmetry in nature?

Symmetry is at the heart of so many different bits of the scientific and natural world. Symmetry often provides efficiency and strength. The hexagons at the heart of the beehive are the most efficient use of wax for the bee.A sphere is the most economical shape for a bubble. Symmetry also denotes denotes something with meaning that can provide information. A bumble bee has bad vision but it can spot symmetry because that is likely to be a flower with sustenance. Humans are attracted to people with symmetrical faces because that denotes a mate with good genes and upbringing. Symmetry is nature's language.

Amusement as a teaching tool

You hold the Professorship Chair for Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. The aim of the Museum of Science is to entertain and make science as a whole fun, exciting and popular, for instance through interactive exhibitions where we teach physics through football. As an Ambassador of Maths and considering your experience in documentaries, what are in your opinion the keys to the future for scientific dissemination?

Most scientists love what they do. Science is full of fantastic stories, wonderful surprises, and has an almost magical quality. The great thing is finding explanations for the magic. If you can communicate the excitement and wonder that scientists have for their subject then I think you're on to a winner.

Which are the most popular initiatives?

The secret I think is variety. Different things work for different people. Some people really respond to finding about the history of science and how we made the great discoveries we have. For others it's the way science leads to fantastic new technologies or provides us with new solutions to humanities great problems. For others its the beauty of the ideas. Television, radio, lectures, books, websites, podcasts, computer games, even scientific walking tours are powerful ways of telling sciences stories. For example I have a team leading mathematical tours of the city revealing the hidden maths behind the buildings we walk by every day. Check out www.mathsinthecity.com You can add your own mathematical locations to our site.

What do you enjoy the most about Mathematics dissemination?
For me mathematics is about discovery but it also about communication. An idea only starts to have life when you bring it alive in the minds of others. That is the exciting thing about dissemination. Seeing someone suddenly get an idea you are trying to explain.

Teachers from Valencia have created the program “Cinematic Maths” in order to explain maths to children using some of the funniest scenes of cartoons like “The Simpsons” or “Futurama”: an example, when Springfield's news anchor says “ Good evening. Did you know that 34 million American adults are obese? Putting together that excess blubber would fill the Grand Canyon two fifths of the way up. This situation could inspire the maths teacher on how to explain basic operations using fractions. What do you think about this pilot programme?

Great! Finding the things that excite children and using that as a vehicle for explaining science is a clever idea. I have created an internet maths school called www.mangahigh.com which uses computer games to teach maths. It's a win-win situation. The kids have fun and learn at the same time.

Is it true that you play in a football team where all the numbers in the player's shirts are prime numbers?

Some seasons back my football team Recreativo Hackney weren't doing too well. At the time Real Madrid had a lot of key players playing in prime number shirts. Carlos no 3, Zidane no 5, Raul no 7, Ronaldo no 11, Beckham no 23. So I thought I'd try it with my team. Amazingly we got promoted when we all wore primes.