Marcus du Sautoy

13th June 2008 at 01:00
A quirky Scot revealed the creative beauty of maths to this Oxford don, television presenter and author
A quirky Scot revealed the creative beauty of maths to this Oxford don, television presenter and author

My education at Gillotts School in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, was a great example of how a comprehensive should be: a large catchment from all social classes. Some of my friends were taken to borstal straight from school while others went on to Oxford University.

At first I fell in with a group that was not keen on education; the truth was they were more interested in robbing the local newsagent. My friendships gradually shifted more to the arty crowd, who were mostly good at their studies. It was the early days of punk, and I had a friend who came in with spiked hair, although we all had to wear the uniform. I became a bit nerdy, more into Wagner than Sid Vicious.

Lots of parents were involved in the school and I believe it was an example of how the comprehensive system can best function - providing an education in the social fabric of life, not just an academic education. Because of my rich experience, I sent my son to a state comprehensive.

My best teacher was Mr Bailson - Arnold Bailson, although we weren't allowed to know that, of course. He was most influential in my second year. I don't think I was obviously excelling; I'd have failed my 11-plus if I'd had to do it. I found multiplication tables boring. I was more interested in kicking a football.

Mr Bailson was a quirky character, a slightly austere Scot and people had a lot of respect for him. There was an old school feeling about him - something of the past - and he really took control of a class.

One day I was pinioned by his voice: "du Sautoy!" I knew I was in trouble. "I want to see you after class." He summoned me to the back of the maths block where he went to smoke his cigar, which we all thought was posh. "I think you should find out what maths is really about," he said, and went on to recommend a column in Scientific American that featured maths puzzles. He also recommended maths books, such as The Language of Mathematics by Frank Land, and I sought them out in a bookshop that was like the Tardis: it had a small entrance but a cavernous room in the basement. These books opened my mind to what the subject was truly about.

The key thing was that Mr Bailson wasn't frightened to show me the big ideas and new approaches, such as thinking about shapes in four dimensions. I was keen on theatre and music in school, and maths connected those things. I see maths as a creative art rather than a useful science. It's a beautiful subject and there is such satisfaction in those connections.

I gave Mr Bailson a mention in my PhD thesis. "Getting a doctorate is the least I expected of you," he said. That was the thing with him, he had high expectations of me. When you are expected to excel it helps you to attain your goals.

When I was invited back to Gillotts to open a special facility in maths, I asked them to invite Mr Bailson too, and it was quite an emotional evening. I was in tears, in recognition of what he'd done.

Marcus du Sautoy is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, author and presenter of the television series Mind Games on BBC Four. He has written numerous academic articles and books on mathematics. His latest book on mathematics is Finding Moonshine. He was talking to Ginny Russell.

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