**Without Maths
We’re Lost in a Dark Labyrinth**

It’s the glue that binds scientific
and artistic cultures. The language of number and symmetry is spoken everywhere

When I was a kid I hadn’t wanted to be a mathematician at
all. My dream had been to become a spy. This ambition was fuelled by too many
visits to see Roger Moore playing 007 at our local cinema combined with the
misconception that my mum, who was once in the diplomatic corps, had been a
spy. To realise my dream I decided I would follow in my mum’s footsteps and
join the Foreign Office.

Speaking foreign languages seemed to be the key to
fulfilling my dream, so when I went to secondary school I signed up for all the
languages my school taught. It did French and German. It was one of the few
comprehensive schools still teaching Latin. There was a course on the BBC
teaching Russian. Being a boy of the Cold War I thought that was an ideal
language for anyone dreaming to become a spy. So I got my French teacher to
help me with Russian.

But as I battled away with these languages I became
increasingly frustrated with the illogical spellings, the endless irregular
verbs that didn’t make any sense and which you just had to learn. I’ve always
had a terrible memory and yearned for a sense of order and logic.

At the height of this crisis my maths teacher pulled me
aside. Almost conspiratorially he let on that the maths we were doing in the
classroom wasn’t really what mathematics was about and he suggested a few books
that he thought might open up the real world of mathematics to me. One of the
books was called The Language of Mathematics. I was intrigued. I’d never
thought of mathematics as a language. As I read further through the book I
realised that this was the language I’d been hankering after.

First, it didn’t seem to have any irregular verbs.
Everything made logical sense, evolving naturally from a few natural
assumptions. That’s not to say that there weren’t surprising twists and turns
throughout the story, but they all made sense. The most exciting discovery was
the power of this language to describe the natural world. It had the power to
reveal where it had all come from but, more excitingly, to predict what will
happen next: for example, to make sense of what is happening (or almost
happening) in the Large Hadron Collider, which uses
the mathematics of strange symmetrical objects in hyperspace. To assess the
potential effect of travel restrictions or vaccinations on the spread of the
H1N1 virus requires mathematical modelling. And climate change is a mathematical
problem: it’s only by understanding the delicate
mathematical relationship between different factors in the environment that we
can understand why temperatures are rising.

Mathematics brings a transparency to these complex systems.
But it isn’t only the scientists who are speaking this language. It is
extraordinary how many interesting mathematical ideas one can find bubbling
beneath the surface of the work of many artists. Either consciously or
subconsciously they are drawn to the same mathematical structures that
fascinate me.

Messiaen consciously exploited the asynchronicity of the prime numbers 17 and 29 to create a
sense of timelessness in the Quartet for the End of Time. In another piece, Île de Feu, I cannot believe he
was aware that the two twelve-note sequences he uses are the basis for
generating one of the strangest symmetrical objects discovered by
mathematicians in our mathematical journey through symmetry. But it is a sensitivity to similar structures that drew him to these
two themes. From the magnificence of the Baroque to the modern architecture of
Arup, Foster and Hadid, one can find complex
mathematical curves running through the buildings that surround us. The writing
of Borges is infused with a fascination with infinity and the nature of space.

With mathematics acting like a glue binding all these
different scientific and artistic cultures together I believe that mathematics
provides a perfect platform for my job as the new Simonyi Professor for the
Public Understanding of Science, which I have held for a year. In some strange
sense I have found myself realising my dream to join the Foreign Office. I see
my role rather like an ambassador for the often alien world of science, trying
to provide bridges for a society that is sometimes suspicious of this powerful
territory. Without an understanding of the language of science and mathematics,
as Galileo once wrote, we will all be wandering around lost in a dark
labyrinth.

*From Marcus du Sautoy’s inaugural lecture as the Simonyi Professor for the
Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford*