Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The People's Mathematician: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The People's Mathematician: Feature

Article excerpt

Marcus du Sautoy, professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, talks to Helen Ward about inspiring a love of numbers, avoiding the boring stuff and why there should be a 'maths literature' GCSE.

Marcus du Sautoy is a mathematician and University of Oxford don who has the singular role of being paid to talk sense to us. We do not have to pass exams or write an academic paper rigorous enough to be accepted at a conference to hear his lectures, we just have to switch on the radio, watch television or open a newspaper.

As the Charles Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science (his predecessor was Richard Dawkins), du Sautoy embodies the role of professor - thinking logically, writing about esoteric subjects - while also playing amateur football. Of course, not all professors play football, which is why du Sautoy, 47, chose to illustrate his University of Oxford web page with a picture of himself standing hands on hips in full Arsenal kit, his shorts drenched in mud and splatters of dirt all over his face and neck. He is grinning and you can almost hear his exhausted breathing.

Why isn't it a simple headshot? Or a clever graphic about the beauty of numbers? Well, partly because he wants to overturn assumptions, but also: "I like the photo." In a way this is illustrative of du Sautoy's mission: to prod people into realising that practising maths is for creative people, that constructing mathematical proofs is a very human endeavour.

In a dim room in London, du Sautoy is the star turn at what is perhaps not the sexiest of events, a conference entitled "Reviewing the New Maths Curriculum".

He is not very starry but neither does he blend in - his dress sense is sometimes described as eccentric. Today he seems almost conventional - for an academic - in a pink shirt, brown trousers and brown velvet jacket. He has white, closely shaven hair and rather neat, small ears. He stands waiting with his hands behind his back. They don't stay there for long.

"What I'm really interested in," he begins, "is trying to turn people into people who love mathematics."

The English curriculum, du Sautoy points out, covers grammar and spelling but also Shakespeare and romantic poetry. "Lucky them." Science covers exciting topics such as stem cells and radioactive half-life. "Lucky them." He pauses. "We," he continues, verbally embracing the audience of maths teachers, advisers, textbook publishers and lecturers, "get to talk about long division and sine and cosine and things which I think are the language and grammar of mathematics but are not what mathematics is really about."

His son, he says, studied Othello at school. Othello is a difficult text but we can expect a certain level of understanding at the age of 16. So why does the same reasoning not apply for hyperdimensional geometry? Is it that difficult? Du Sautoy speaks quickly, his hands now moving rapidly.

He explains that, through using perspective, artists can show a three- dimensional cube on a two-dimensional canvas by drawing a square within a square and joining the corners. The audience nods, understanding. Similarly, he goes on, a four-dimensional object can be represented in three dimensions by building a cube within a cube and joining the corners - as demonstrated in the 110m-high La Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris.

"My son, when he was at his comprehensive school, did a maths trip to Paris, which I thought was dreadfully exciting," du Sautoy says. Until, that was, he discovered that they did not go to the arch. "They went to Disneyland and did the statistics of queuing, which is the kind of boring side of maths." The audience laughs.

Challenging concepts

His point is made. Maths has a technical side, children are expected to master it one step at a time, and if you do well enough you will eventually get to learn about these great ideas. But why not introduce children to conceptually challenging notions earlier? …

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