Q&A: Marcus du Sautoy is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Fellow of New College. He is the author of The Music of the Primes, Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Symmetry, Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature and The Number Mysteries. He has presented numerous radio and TV series including The Story of Maths and The Code. He is a recipient of the Royal Society’s Faraday Prize (2009) and has also received an OBE for services to science (2010).
Professor, you’re known for popularising mathematics and advocating that more people are adept at the subject. What are your reasons behind these objectives? Why should more people be good at maths? How would it change society?
The big mistake people make is to think that mathematics is about doing your multiplication tables and performing long division calculations. But mathematics is really about pattern searching. Learning to think logically. Finding ways to use the information you have to solve problems. These are all skills that are important to have whatever your profession. Being able to spot patterns in data allows you to make predications into the future which is crucial if you want to make good plans for your company. A logical mindset gives you an edge whether you are a shopkeeper, a lawyer, a politician or a journalist. A mathematically literate society is one that will be economically more successful and make better decisions for its citizens.
Professor, there is an ingrained belief among many of us that you’re either good or bad at maths. Would you agree with such a belief and how would you respond?
People too quickly say they are bad at mathematics and often blame it on their biology claiming that they were born without a brain to do mathematics. I don’t believe this at all. We have been evolutionary programmed to be mathematical animals. It is the mathematical part of our brain that has allowed us to survive and thrive in the jungle and beyond. Most people’s fear of mathematics comes often from inadequate teaching or inheriting a fear from their parents who also too easily admit to being bad at mathematics. I believe we all have the capacity to understand logical ideas. Mathematics is a muscle in the brain which needs to be exercised. I hope that my visit to Bhutan can kick start some people’s mathematical work-out.
Many Bhutanese, perhaps, a majority, are “poor” in maths. Many blame the education system and the curriculum. Perhaps based on your experiences elsewhere, what do you recommend when it comes to how a mathematics curriculum connects more with students and teachers?
I don’t think we are brave enough with the mathematics that we teach in the curriculum. We teach mathematics like learning a musical instrument where the student is only allowed to play scales and apogees and never gets to hear any real music. I would like to teach some of the big exciting stories of mathematics as part of the curriculum. Stories about symmetry, prime numbers, 4-dimensional geometry, fractals. There is too much emphasis on teaching mathematics that is useful. What about the mathematics that is beautiful and inspiring. A student studying English learns how to spell and write good grammar but they also get to read Shakespeare and Dickens. The mathematics curriculum needs to include the Shakespeare of mathematics.
How important can a population with good math skills be for a developing country like Bhutan?
There is increasing evidence across the world that those governments that invest in the mathematical literacy of their citizens are those that are flourishing both economically, cultural and politically. Part of the reason for example for your neighbour India’s fast economic growth is because mathematics in Indian culture is very much valued and invested in. A developing country needs to make clever use of its resources and be innovative about its policies. Mathematics is an extremely important tool in creating efficient algorithms and finding clever paths through complex decisions. It is also a wonderfully exciting subject with great stories so it also has the chance to boost and enhance the mental happiness of a nation through understanding the language that makes the universe tick.
Some say maths is beautiful? Could you provide an example if you agree?
Beauty is a word that is often mentioned in connection with mathematics. Part of the reason is that what we call beautiful is often associated with the brain recognising something that is important and worthy of notice. Beauty is therefore often a good guide to uncovering the truth. I research the subject of symmetry and this is what I will talk about in Bhutan. We often associate beauty in the human face for example with a face that is perfectly symmetrical. This is the brain responding to the importance of symmetry in navigating our environment. Those brains that can pick out symmetry survived the chaos of the jungle.
This will be your first visit to Bhutan, what might you be looking forward to experiencing here during your stay?
I would very much like to experience the creation of a sand mandala while in Bhutan. These wonderfully symmetrical patterns are an outward expression of the symmetry that is at the heart of our psychological make-up. For me doing mathematics is a very meditative process. I am keen to explore how much being a mathematician might share in common with the practice of meditation in Buddhism.