Sat, Dec 23, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Think math isn't sexy? Think again

Marcus du Sautoy, a professor at Wxfrod, will do whatever it takes to turn the public on to mathematics


Marcus du Sautoy is answering the phone and making tea while his laptop does the math.

It's arduous math: hours of long division, testing massive numbers for "primeness," or indivisibility by other numbers. It's also high-stakes math: the first person to find a 10 million digit prime number -- hugely valuable to defense and commercial security systems -- will win a US$100,000 prize.

Professors of math like du Sautoy are not the only runners in this race. Business teams, talented amateurs, lone individuals, even groups of Chinese schoolchildren (who regularly e-mail him to report their progress) are all chasing prime numbers.

Thanks to a freeware Web site that gives out the testing formulae in return for an eventual share of the prize, anyone with time, commitment and a computer can now have a stab at a problem that has obsessed and eluded professional mathematicians for centuries.

What is unusual about du Sautoy is that he hopes that anyone will.

Du Sautoy is a walking oxymoron: the popular mathematician. He has a bestselling book, newspaper columns, radio series, a TV show, schools and public lecture tours and now the landmark TV scientist slot -- this year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. With the title The Num8er My5teries, and subjects ranging from codes, magic tricks, insect evolution and the shape of the universe, he hopes to turn a generation of young teenagers on to math, just as he was.

At primary school, he wasn't particularly good at sums, he says; his parents were told not to bother entering him for selective secondaries because he couldn't spell and didn't know his multiplication tables. But a sharp-eyed secondary school teacher spotted his interest in mathematical patterns and suggested he read the math column in Scientific American.

Then, in Christmas 1978, when he was 13, his father took him to the RI lectures. For the first time since 1820, they were given by a mathematician, Sir Christopher Zeeman. Du Sautoy was entranced.

"They were totally inspiring. Zeeman really pushed people; he did stuff like catastrophe theory. I came away saying: `I don't understand that language, but I want to learn it,'" du Sautoy said.

It's a message he continues to push. Mathematics is not just sums, he tells children and adults -- particularly math teachers -- and it need not necessarily be taught hierarchically. You don't always have to get step A right before lifting the veil on step B.

"We don't say to children learning music `You're only allowed to play scales until you've got them all right,'" he said. "Mathematics has beauty and romance. It's not a boring place to be, the mathematical world. It's an extraordinary place; it's worth spending time there."

Nevertheless, he hesitated before joining that world full-time himself. He won a coveted place as a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University immediately after his first degree, then gave it up to go and work on a kibbutz in Israel. He thought about becoming an actor. He considered the US.

Then the Royal Society offered him a 10-year fellowship based in Oxford -- initially All Souls, and now at Wadham College, where he was an undergraduate -- in which he could split his time between his own research, investigating theoretical symmetry in infinite dimensions, and "selling" mathematics. He took it.

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