Calculated Mystique

Marcus Du Sautoy. Photo: Ishan Tankha

When I heard I would have to blog about ‘The Number Mysteries’ — Marcus Du Sautoy’s talk on the ‘Magic of the Primes: Music, Football and Why Maths Matters’ the nightmare returned. The last time I saw it, I was 15. A giant 23x chases me down a dark alley, running on a million little creature feet, hissing in that sinister way that only a number can.

Sautoy doesn’t share my heebie jeebies. In fact, he adores prime numbers — he plays in a number 17 football jersey, he lives in house no 53 and only travels in buses whose number plates claim to be indivisible by everything except one. In his session on Prime Numbers at THiNK2012, Sautoy might not have converted the math-haters in the audience, but he certainly made us wish we’d met in school, when the nightmares began.

Why does Sautoy love primes? Because they are the building blocks of math. The indivisible numbers from which you build everything else, the atoms of arithmetic, the periodic table. It’s easy to see why musicians and poets are math nerds when you listen to Sautoy speak – he believes a mathematician is a pattern seeker, someone looking for structure in a chaotic world, to understand the past and figure where we’re going in the future. Suddenly it feels like this conversation has turned meta-mathical: How many possibilities could a potential decision yield? Could the patterns we’ve been following all our lives suddenly veer off into a different direction?

Apparently the first math-nerds in the world were not Indians, or the Egyptians, or any humans at all — Sautoy tells us about the cicadas of North America which hide underground for 17 years before emerging into the forest to ‘party away’ — feed, fornicate and die. Another breed follows the same cycle, but every 13 years. Why do cicadas pick primes? Sautoy believes it might be because prime numbers are the key to survival — I’m not sure I agree, but I do feel pleased about having been born on the 11th of the third month.

At the inaugural dinner last night, everyone Sautoy introduced himself to scurried away with a look of fear. After the resounding applause that followed his talk today — I hope he’s primed for followers in large numbers.

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