Without Maths Weíre Lost in a Dark Labyrinth

 

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

 

When I was a kid I hadnít 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 mumís 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 didnít make any sense and which you just had to learn. Iíve 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 wasnít 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. Iíd never thought of mathematics as a language. As I read further through the book I realised that this was the language Iíd been hankering after.

 

First, it didnít seem to have any irregular verbs. Everything made logical sense, evolving naturally from a few natural assumptions. Thatís not to say that there werenít 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: itís 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 isnít 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, őle 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 Sautoyís inaugural lecture as the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford