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Marcus du Sautoy


If your name is Marcus Peter Frances du Sautoy, the letters OBE appear after your name, you went to Oxford, and you play football and the trumpet in your spare time, one imagines the most taxing thing you’ve had to do in life would be to rue the downfall of the British empire with fellow lads-of-leisure.

Instead, Marcus du Sautoy is one of the world’s foremost mathematicians; successor to none other than Richard Dawkins as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science – the only other person apart from Dawkins to ever hold the position – and counted among the United Kingdom’s most respected scientists.

His professional passion is prime numbers, and he can compete with the best of them when it comes to sheer mathematical gobbledygook but Marcus’s scientific and academic life – he is also Professor of Mathematics at Oxford – are focused on dispelling precisely those barriers. “I’m a maths nerd,” he told The Guardian recently. “I love maths for its own sake. But for others the subject comes alive when they learn how mathematics is not an isolated subject, but runs seductively below the surface of many other subjects in the curriculum.”

Informally called the Chief Evangelist for Science, Marcus’ almost single point agenda is to get people – theoretically students but in reality, most adults as well – to understand what maths really is: the very language of science. To know the language is to construct ideas the same way we use English to create literature; to know maths is to understand creation, and some of the fundamentals of the universe. To know maths is even to make sense of hedge fund managers, he grins.

So he decided to bring sexy back into mathematics in a host of unorthodox ways.

He has hosted a BBC miniseries, The Story of Maths and more recently, a fascinating John-Grishamesque The Code. In 2008, he worked with famed theatre group Complicite to devise A Disappearing Number, the celebrated play that tells the story of the unlikely collaboration between Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and Cambridge don G H Hardy. In a more recent foray into theatre, he worked with actress and fellow-math-lover Victoria Gould to explore some of the most fundamental questions of existence (What is the shape of the universe? Is it finite or infinite?) in a ‘play’ scripted and performed by them. He’s written a number of well-respected books including Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature, where he hunted down fascinating examples of mathematical and aesthetic symmetry throughout nature. He has collaborated with composer Dorothy Ker on a piece of experimental music in which they examine a four-dimensional space through paths of movement. He has run a Sexy Maths column complete with weekly conundrums in The Times for years. He uses math to explain why David Beckham picked the number 23 for his jersey at Real Madrid, how jazz musicians play with ‘infinite divisions of time’, the maths involved in predicting the weather, and the literally countless other ways the subject underpins everything in science.

Ironically for a subject that rests so squarely on logic, it also grounds him emotionally – something he feels it has the power to do for many. As a schoolboy, he was intimidated and confused by the irrationality of most languages, their inconsistency with rules. Maths was a relief, offering the ultimate security: logic. “Mathematicians are often arrogant because they see themselves as custodians of the truth,” he laughs. That’s also what underpins a strong co-relation for most mathematicians between art and maths – an aesthetic beauty that math-fiends have celebrated for centuries.

But Marcus is a practical, rugged man with an eclectic fashion sense who plays football and knows that romantic notions of maths aren’t always going to do the trick. “To understand mathematics is to wield a very real-world power,” he said to The Guardian. “I think there is something about the power of proof, that you can be so confident in it. There are very few other areas, even other sciences, where you can be so certain about something.”

His brilliant and highly successful career certainly proves it – he has been awarded the Berwick Prize for outstanding mathematical research; the Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society of London for excellence in communicating science to UK audiences, and heads the Mathematical Association. And like most scientists, he’s amused when asked what religion he practices.

“Football,” he laughs. “More specifically, Arsenal.”

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