The people's mathematician

29th March 2013 at 00:00
Marcus du Sautoy talks to Helen Ward about inspiring a love of numbers, avoiding the boring stuff and why there should be a `maths literature' GCSE

Marcus du Sautoy is a mathematician and University of Oxford don who has the singular role of being paid to talk sense to us. We do not have to pass exams or write an academic paper rigorous enough to be accepted at a conference to hear his lectures, we just have to switch on the radio, watch television or open a newspaper.

As the Charles Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science (his predecessor was Richard Dawkins), du Sautoy embodies the role of professor - thinking logically, writing about esoteric subjects - while also playing amateur football. Of course, not all professors play football, which is why du Sautoy, 47, chose to illustrate his University of Oxford web page with a picture of himself standing hands on hips in full Arsenal kit, his shorts drenched in mud and splatters of dirt all over his face and neck. He is grinning and you can almost hear his exhausted breathing.

Why isn't it a simple headshot? Or a clever graphic about the beauty of numbers? Well, partly because he wants to overturn assumptions, but also: "I like the photo." In a way this is illustrative of du Sautoy's mission: to prod people into realising that practising maths is for creative people, that constructing mathematical proofs is a very human endeavour.

In a dim room in London, du Sautoy is the star turn at what is perhaps not the sexiest of events, a conference entitled "Reviewing the New Maths Curriculum".

He is not very starry but neither does he blend in - his dress sense is sometimes described as eccentric. Today he seems almost conventional - for an academic - in a pink shirt, brown trousers and brown velvet jacket. He has white, closely shaven hair and rather neat, small ears. He stands waiting with his hands behind his back. They don't stay there for long.

"What I'm really interested in," he begins, "is trying to turn people into people who love mathematics."

The English curriculum, du Sautoy points out, covers grammar and spelling but also Shakespeare and romantic poetry. "Lucky them." Science covers exciting topics such as stem cells and radioactive half-life. "Lucky them." He pauses. "We," he continues, verbally embracing the audience of maths teachers, advisers, textbook publishers and lecturers, "get to talk about long division and sine and cosine and things which I think are the language and grammar of mathematics but are not what mathematics is really about."

His son, he says, studied Othello at school. Othello is a difficult text but we can expect a certain level of understanding at the age of 16. So why does the same reasoning not apply for hyperdimensional geometry? Is it that difficult? Du Sautoy speaks quickly, his hands now moving rapidly.

He explains that, through using perspective, artists can show a three- dimensional cube on a two-dimensional canvas by drawing a square within a square and joining the corners. The audience nods, understanding. Similarly, he goes on, a four-dimensional object can be represented in three dimensions by building a cube within a cube and joining the corners - as demonstrated in the 110m-high La Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris.

"My son, when he was at his comprehensive school, did a maths trip to Paris, which I thought was dreadfully exciting," du Sautoy says. Until, that was, he discovered that they did not go to the arch. "They went to Disneyland and did the statistics of queuing, which is the kind of boring side of maths." The audience laughs.

Challenging concepts

His point is made. Maths has a technical side, children are expected to master it one step at a time, and if you do well enough you will eventually get to learn about these great ideas. But why not introduce children to conceptually challenging notions earlier? They are the kind of ideas that can inspire a child to spend more time on that technical side.

Du Sautoy has an idea for a second GCSE, a sort of maths literature to match maths language (to borrow the English department's terminology). A course that introduces students to analysis of the culture and history of great mathematical ideas could be sufficiently intellectually challenging, he thinks, without requiring students to reproduce the maths involved.

Du Sautoy has impressive intellectual credentials. He won a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, and did his doctorate there before moving to Israel for his postdoctoral studies. It was in Israel that he met his wife, Shani, with whom he has a son, Tomer, and adopted twin daughters, Magaly and Ina, from Guatemala. He is currently a fellow of New College, Oxford, and a professor of maths at the university. His work, which covers number theory and group theory (the mathematics of symmetry), won him the 2001 Berwick Prize, one of the most prestigious mathematical awards.

All the while, however, he has been working to make maths and science as popular with Joe Public as possible. He was already becoming famous beyond the readers of Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society when he became professor of public understanding in 2008.

As such, his appointment was broadly welcomed by other academics. For example, physicist Jim Al-Khalili, professor of public engagement in science at the University of Surrey, told the press: "I am absolutely thrilled by this news. He has done more than anyone else in a generation to popularise mathematics."

It is this work that makes du Sautoy almost famous - he is repeatedly stopped by people at the conference and asked for his autograph and photograph. He has presented television programmes about maths, The Story of Maths and The Code, as well as co-presenting School of Hard Sums with comedian Dara O'Briain. His books include the best-selling The Music of the Primes and he has been a guest on numerous radio programmes, discussing subjects as varied as infinity, the bagel and blobby shapes.

Many, many times he speaks about music. He is a trumpeter and was given the chance to learn to conduct on the BBC Two programme Maestro. That, he says, did not turn out as well as he had hoped. "They had a role cut out for me as the `unemotional' maths guy." For a man who has built a career on being passionate about maths, it was not a comfortable fit.

Du Sautoy grew up in Henley-on-Thames. His mother, Jennifer, studied English at the University of St Andrews, then joined the Foreign Office before leaving to bring up Marcus and his sister, Charlotte. His father, Bernard, worked at ICL, one of the first English computer firms. He referred to his childhood as "wonderful" when he appeared on Radio Four's Desert Island Discs, and ascribes his logical and creative sides to his father and mother respectively. He is the grandson of Faber and Faber chairman Peter du Sautoy - described in his obituary in The Independent as "possibly the last of the gentleman publishers" - who also attended Wadham College.

Du Sautoy may be a scientist but he is a scientist whose godmother was the late Valerie Eliot, wife of T.S. Eliot. He is a scientist who plays the trumpet and who dreams of running away to join the Jacques Lecoq school of physical theatre in Paris, the training ground for the founders of groundbreaking theatre company Complicite.

In many of his books, interviews and programmes, du Sautoy credits one man with sparking his love of mathematics (and he does say mathematics, not maths). This man was Arnold Bailson, his maths teacher at Gillotts School in Henley-on-Thames, who took him to one side and explained that there was more to maths than what he was learning in school. Bailson suggested that he seek out Scientific American magazine and the essay A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. Hardy.

Du Sautoy's father took up the challenge, obtaining the books and taking his son to the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures in 1978, where Sir Christopher Zeeman spoke about "mathematics into pictures". It was the first time maths had been the subject of the lectures since they began in 1825.

Du Sautoy loved the Christmas Lectures, but by then he had also learned to love the puzzle-solving side of maths. After all, more people will enjoy listening to popular science talks, reading books about the search for prime numbers and watching the Christmas Lectures than are prepared to sit down and do the actual work involved in stretching this knowledge further. But is that a reason to stop that type of enjoyment? That spreading of knowledge? That education?

Focusing on the big ideas

Ironically, du Sautoy thinks that students who are currently breezing through their maths classes would not be interested in his proposed GCSE, which he envisages could cover topics such as "How did the Romans cope without the number zero?"

"Kids who like the very technical side of maths will say: `But I like things that have exact answers and now you're asking me to explain about ideas,' " he says. "I wouldn't put it on the core curriculum, but it would be something that students could have access to, as a second GCSE. I think it would appeal to those who are not so technically adept but love ideas."

His eagerness to broaden the appeal of maths is also about inclusivity. Who knows when inspiration will strike? He remembers little of his primary maths and claims to be rubbish at mental arithmetic. He recalls a discussion between his parents and his teacher when it was thought the family might move to Scotland: there were doubts about whether he would pass a selection exam.

"I'm a big believer in the comprehensive system, which allows flexibility within school for people to get things late," he says. "I'm all for streaming, but if a student starts to really excel at age 13, at a comprehensive they can then be shifted into (the) fast stream. Age 11 is far too early to start saying somebody is good or not so good at maths. I would have been missed."

It is just as well for generations of children - and adult fans - that he was not missed. In 2006, he was asked to give the Christmas Lectures, a fitting way of repaying the debt of inspiration that he gained from them. His lectures were called "The Num8er My5teries", and the Royal Institution website now links to maths games featuring an animated du Sautoy in a number of natty outfits, including the oft-donned pink shirt, an astronaut suit and a jungle explorer's ensemble.

The lectures were also turned into a book, in which Richard Dawkins paid tribute to the man who later became his successor. Comparing him to a naturalist exploring unknown regions, he said: "Numbers are Marcus du Sautoy's animals and his love for them glows on every page."

Photo credit: c David LeveneGuardian News amp; Media Ltd

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