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Secondary Magazine - Issue 71: The Interview


This page has been archived. The content was correct at the time of original publication, but is no longer updated.
Created on 07 October 2010 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 26 October 2010 by ncetm_administrator

 

Secondary Magazine Issue 71microphone
 

The Interview

Name: Marcus du Sautoy
 

Professor Marcus Du Sautoy, photograph used with permission

 
Professor Marcus du Sautoy,
photograph used with permission

About you: I am professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, a post previously held by Richard Dawkins.

The most recent use of mathematics in your job was…
I am writing a paper with a colleague in Oxford that requires analysing how many solutions an equation has modulo each prime p. The strange behaviour of this equation might help answer a 50-year-old conjecture about how many symmetrical objects there are with a prime power number of symmetries.
 
Some mathematics that amazed you is...the solution to the Poincaré Conjecture by the Russian Grigori Perelman. This is the first of the Millennium Prizes to be solved. It is a conjecture about the different topological shapes that 3-dimensional space can be wrapped up into. So it tells what shape our universe might be. Perelman didn’t collect his $1 million dollar prize this summer. He prefers proving theorems to prizes.

Why mathematics?
I love the certainty that mathematics provides. A proof tells you with 100% certainty that your theorem is true. It can never be overturned. This is what makes it different to the sciences – scientists can hypothesise and provide convincing experimental evidence for a theory but ultimately can never know with certainty that their model is correct.

A significant mathematics-related incident in your life was...
The buzz of discovering something new in mathematics is amazing. I still remember the moment I created a new symmetrical object with strange new properties that had never been seen before. I am so proud of the discovery that I’d like it carved on my gravestone. Unfortunately the object lives in hyperspace so it will have to be described using the language of group theory.
 
A mathematics joke that makes you laugh is...
How can you spot an extrovert mathematician? They look at your shoes when they talk to you.

The best book you have ever read is...
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse is about a futuristic game that aims to fuse mathematics, music, art, science and philosophy. When I read this I thought, ‘Yes, this is the game I want to play.’ That’s what I try to do in my outreach work: to show how mathematics is everywhere in what we do. My ultimate aim is to become a master of the glass bead game. 

Who inspired you? 
Mr Bailson, my teacher at Gillotts Comprehensive School. He showed me that mathematics is so much more than just long division. Also Sir Christopher Zeeman. I went to one of his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1978, the first ever to be given on mathematics. I came away that Christmas knowing that I wanted to be a mathematician like him when I grew up.

If you weren't doing this job you would...
Run away to the theatre. Apart from mathematics my other passion is theatre. I was very lucky to help Complicite with A Disappearing Number, their play about mathematics. I did workshops with the company for a couple of years exploring the maths of Ramanujan. I am currently devising a play with a group of artists about the Poincaré Conjecture.

What is your new book about?
The Num8er My5teries is based on the material I devised for the Christmas Lectures I gave in 2006. The book is very playful, full of games, experiments and curious stories of how mathematics can help answer some of life’s mysteries. It also introduces five of the Millennium Prize problems, including the Poincaré Conjecture.

Tell us about mangahigh.com...
My 14-year-old spends hours playing games online. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if we could create games that were brilliant fun to play but that required knowing your maths to advance through the levels. Mangahigh.com is the internet maths school that came out of this idea and uses curriculum compliant games to teach GCSE maths. Schools and pupils who’ve played the games love them.


The Num8er My5teries is published by Fourth Estate who also publish Marcus’s other books: The Music of the Primes and Finding Moonshine: a mathematician’s journey through symmetry.

 
 
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