Finding maths where you least expect it

Interview with Marcus du Sautoy

What makes viruses so virulent? Why do we enjoy music? Why is the Alhambra so beautiful? The answer? Mathematics!

Marcus clearly relishes being the professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, UK. “It’s a hugely varied job – making television programmes, doing radio interviews, giving lectures – and that’s what I find so exciting about it. Another thing I enjoy is working with a team, because mathematics can be quite a lonely pursuit: you spend a lot of it on your own at your desk in your own little mathematical world.”

Isn’t a mathematician an odd choice for the job, though? After all, maths isn’t always even considered a science.

“There are definitely differences between maths and the other sciences,” agrees Marcus. “In mathematics, you can prove things with 100 % certainty. The ancient Greeks proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers, and that’s as true today as it was 2000 years ago. Personally, I’ve discovered new symmetrical objects that I know won’t be overturned by future discoveries. So mathematics can give you a little bit of immortality.

“In the other sciences, in contrast, a new theory emerges which knocks the old theory off the pedestal. Newton’s physics had to give way to relativity, and perhaps relativity will give way to a new theory. So the other sciences are a much more evolutionary process – only the fittest theories survive.

“However, the other sciences often rely on mathematics to articulate their discoveries and predictions. As we speak, everyone’s getting excited about the announcement of potential evidence for the Higgs boson at CERN, but the Higgs boson couldn’t have been predicted without mathematics. Maths is the language of science, so in some ways having a mathematician as the professor for the public understanding for science is the best of all possible worlds.” He then adds, “but I would say that, wouldn’t I?”

His predecessor in the post, Richard Dawkins, edited The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, selecting pieces by scientists Stephen Jay Gould, JBS Haldane, Rachel Carson, Stephen Hawking and Primo Levi. If Marcus were to make a similar collection, whom would he include?

“Obviously, I would probably include more mathematicians than Richard did. Bernhard Riemann, for example, who really changed the way we look at geometry. It’s thanks to him that we can talk about relativity – without Riemann’s world, we wouldn’t have Einstein.

I would love to take several scientific topics and show that at their hearts are great pieces of mathematics. For example, Alan Turing, who is famous for cracking German codes at Bletchley Park, UK, during the Second World War, also made extraordinary contributions to the theory of artificial intelligence, to computing, and even to biology. The equations that he was studying towards the end of his life explain why animals have certain patterns; it’s mathematics that controls why a leopard has spots and a tiger has stripes.”

Marcus believes that maths even affects how we perceive the world. “Most people think that maths is about long division to lots of decimal places. Really, though, a mathematician is someone who looks at structure and pattern – and in a sense that’s how everyone reads the world: we’re all mathematicians at heart. Part of my mission is to reveal to people that if, for example, they love listening to music, they are probably listening to it in a very mathematical way, spotting patterns and structures, bits that are similar but changed – perhaps in a symmetrical way, having been turned upside down.”


The original article was written by Eleanor Hayes and can be seen in full on the Science in School website.