Interview with Professor Marcus du Sautoy

Prof. du SautoyIn this interview we chat with with Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Simonyi Professor for the public understanding of science, Fellow of New College, ESPRC Senior Media Fellow, Berwick Prize winner, Officer of the Order of the British Empire, TED speaker, and a published author. We are sincerely honored to have him here.

1. I’m certain many of our readers would be interested in knowing how you got started. What led to your interest and love of the discipline?

Prof. du Sautoy: It was being exposed to real mathematics when I was at school. My teacher showed me some of the big stories of maths. We tend to focus too much on the vocabulary and grammar and forget to show kids the Shakespeare of maths. I was also lucky to attend the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures when they were first done on maths by Christopher Zeeman. I was very lucky to be given the chance to give the lectures myself in 2006 and this summer I am publishing a new book based on the lectures called The Num8er My5teries. The book is my manifesto for what we could be teaching kids.

2. Let’s talk about the perception of mathematics and science in today’s society. At a time where scientific awareness and reason are greatly needed to further progress the state of society and democracy, it appears to me that anti-intellectual, and in particular anti-scientific, stances are on the rise. It often seems that the majority of people believe they are not really expected to know much about mathematics and science, despite the far-reaching impact these disciplines have on our complex society and world.

Being “bad” at mathematics or failing to possess a fundamental grasp of other scientific areas is not only considered tolerable, but often flaunted without so much as a hint of shame. One would rightfully be considered ignorant for not knowing anything about Shakespeare, yet this is much less the case when dealing with the magnificent works of Euclid or Euler). At one extreme of the spectrum, there are also religious, political and economical pressures to invalidate evolution, global warming, and science as a whole. A recent reminder of the so-called war on science came through the high profile libel case against Dr. Singh. Thankfully that situation ended on a positive note when the judge concluded that, “Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation […]”.

In your opinion, what is the best approach when it comes to fighting this trend and helping society to embrace reason and science? How do we increase trust in the scientific method and interest in the art of problem solving? How should we prepare the next generation to be more interested in mathematics and science?

Prof. du Sautoy: Increasingly our lives are being influenced by scientific developments which means that science impacts on everyone in society. By not engaging in the ideas of science you are effectively disenfranchising yourself from that debate. But it’s also the responsibility of scientists to be open to dialogue and share their science with society. That is why positions like the Simonyi chair for the public understanding of science are crucial in creating bridges.

I actually think there is an appetite for science among the public. TV, radio, newspapers and the bookshelves are full of interesting stories of science. I think we need to tap in more to the wonder and magic of science. Most scientists do science because they enjoy discovering how our universe works. I think most of us enjoy that feeling.

3. As a Simonyi Professor for the public understanding of science, you hold an important position that previously belonged to Richard Dawkins. As many know, his approach is very confrontational and direct. It places a great deal of emphasis on atheism and the damage that religion can – and often does – cause society. Despite being an atheist yourself (if we exclude your passion for Arsenal), it could be argued that you are a much less controversial figure and a diametrically opposite type of scientist. Could you describe how your strategy to promote the value of science and rational thought is different (from Dawkins) and how being a mathematician factors into this area for you?

Prof. du Sautoy: I think mathematics is a great choice for the chair. Mathematics is the language of science and bubbles underneath everything scientists do. It is probably at the other end of the scientific spectrum from evolutionary biology so it makes a good contrast. I see the role as an ambassadorial one, trying to create connections between society and the often foreign feeling land of science.

4. Your name is synonymous with the concept of symmetry. Can you briefly explain to our readers why symmetry is such an important topic?

Prof. du Sautoy: Symmetry is Nature’s language. Symmetry is present whenever there is structure or meaning. Our brains are evolutionarily programmed to be sensitive to symmetry. It is the key to our survival. It is also at the heart of many of the other sciences. Crystal structure and viruses depend on symmetry. Even the predictions we are making about what we might see in the LHC are thanks to a strange symmetrical object that exists in multidimensional space.

5. Can you tell our readers about your fund-raising project Symmetry4Charity, which helps provide kids from Guatemala with educational support? For those who haven’t read Finding Moonshine (published as Symmetry in the States), what led you to support a cause centered around Guatemala?

Prof. du Sautoy: I have two identical twin girls adopted from Guatemala (nothing to do with my obsession for symmetry). While living in Guatemala I encountered the charity Common Hope that gets kids in Guatemala off the streets and into education. Provided they stay in school their families receive health care and housing. It seemed a very empowering charity rather than one which made kids dependant. To help the charity I am naming new symmetrical objects that I have discovered in my research after people who donate to the charity. Just one more way that maths can help the world.

6. I personally find the idea of drawing out people’s philanthropic side by naming a symmetric group after them to be both fun and brilliant, so I donated to the initiative myself. Some may argue though that you are selling (albeit for a very worthwhile and noble cause) your discoveries. How would you respond to that sort of criticism?

Prof. du Sautoy: I think if I was personally making money out of the project there may be some justification to criticise the project. But I think it is a great way to engage people with cutting edge mathematics while at the same time helping one of the poorest countries in the world.

7. As not all of our readers are familiar with group theory, could you please describe, in layman’s terms, the process of finding new symmetric groups? Do you use any mathematical software in your workflow?

Prof. du Sautoy: My brain, a pencil and yellow legal notepads! That’s the best equipment for exploring the mathematical landscape. Because the symmetrical objects live in multidimensional space you can’t draw pictures or build them. Instead the language of group theory provides an algebraic way to show how the symmetries of this object interact with each other. These objects are very special because they are connected with another important subject in mathematics: elliptic curves.

8. What mathematical literature would you recommend to those members of the general public who are interested in exploring symmetry further? As well, what titles would you promote to the budding undergraduate student?

Prof. du Sautoy: My book Finding Moonshine tells the story of our journey to understand and classify what symmetries are out there. It is also a very personal book talking about my own work as a mathematician. I tried to give readers a back stage pass to the mathematician’s lab. For a deeper introduction I would recommend Conway et al’s The Symmetry of Things.

We wish to thank Professor du Sautoy for his time. We also highly encourage you to donate to his very worthwhile cause. Common Hope needs to raise £1000 from 50 unique donors by the end of April. Let’s make this happen. If they’re able to do so, they’ll receive a permanent listing on the UK Global Giving website that would allow UK donors to benefit from Gift Aid where tax is added to the donation. Common Hope is an educational charity supporting and empowering children and their families in Guatemala. Donate £10 or more and you’ll be entitled to request a symmetric group to be named after you (you can even name it after someone you care about, as a gift).


If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch Professor du Sautoy’s TED speech below:

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