Wikinews interviews English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy

Monday, September 24, 2007

Marcus du Sautoy is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He is not only a researcher; he had great success with the popular book The Music of the Primes. His last book Finding Moonshine will be published in English in February 2008. It has already been published in Italian with the title Il disordine perfetto ("The perfect disorder").

In September 2007 he was in Levico Terme (Trento, Italy) for a conference. He was interviewed for Wikinews.

Marcus du Sautoy


What are you doing here in Levico? Are you going to talk?

Actually, I'm an organizer. So many people wanted to talk, so we decided to take a step backwards so I am not giving a talk here. But I have several students here who are talking about work related to what I do. My work is looking at symmetry, something called group theory, but using tools from number theory, something called the Zeta function, which was introduced by Riemann. So I used that tool to try and understand instead of prime numbers, which are very hard to understand, what sort of symmetry can exist. That is one of the major things I have been investigating. This conference is looking at ways of connecting lots of different ideas in mathematics to help us understand groups and symmetry.

As a mathematician you are dedicating yourself not only to research but also to popularization. Why?

I think being a scientist is about making discoveries but it is also as much about communication. I mean discoveries really cannot be said to exist, I think, unless you communicate them to other people. So, for example this conference is about communicating to our peers but I think that communication can go to a much broader audience. It brings the mathematics alive much more, if you can communicate it to more people. But also, you know, I became a mathematician because people, the generation above me, made the effort to excite the general public about mathematics and I thought that was what I wanted to be when I grow up, so my hope is as well that my popularization will encourage the next generation of mathematicians but also to encourage politicians to recognize that maths is an important part of our society and needs to be funded.

What about your experiences on radio and television?

I've done a lot of radio work, exploring mathematical ideas on the radio. However, people could not just think that maths could be done on television, you know, what are you going to see? It was a real breakthrough for me to be able to make some documentaries about mathematics. In particular I did a documentary about The Music of the Primes, and it was great! It was a travel program because mathematics is a very international subject and so we travel around the world: to India, to Germany, to Greece. At the moment I'm in the middle of making a history of mathematics series for the BBC, four one-hour programs from the Ancient Babylon through to the modern day. So we've been all over the world to China, to India again, Africa... And I also did a game show, that was quite fun, called Mind Games, which was a puzzle show which I hosted. I think a lot of people got into mathematics because of puzzles, especially at the moment, with Sudoku being so popular, I think people will love doing puzzles - now it's a very popular TV show.

How do you explain the success of your book The Music of the Primes?

Well, I think people love stories, and I tried to write that book rather like a murder mystery. I really think that solving a mathematical puzzle is a little bit like trying to find who done it in a murder mystery. And I tried to keep that narrative line very strong in the book, so people read it like a novel, and I think a lot of people have said that it does read in that way. You actually do not find out who done it in the end because it is an open problem. So for me in a novel it is important to have a good narrative structure which the mathematics provided, but the people as well, that was important to me, to bring the people alive who did the maths. Even if people do not get the maths, they enjoy the stories about the people, the period of history that is being talked about and they can still follow the paths of mathematical narrative even if they do not get the details so I that is why it was so successful.

And what about your last book Finding Moonshine?

This is a slightly more challenging writing project for me, because it combine both historical story on symmetry with a personal story of what I do as a mathematician. It is divided into twelve chapters each one a month in a year of me being a mathematician. As I tried to combine what I do - I think people find deeply mysterious what a mathematician does all day - so I tried to give people a little bit of access to the world that I live in. But you are seeing also some historical story, a bit like The Music of the Primes but looking at symmetry instead.

What do you think of the Italian title, Il disordine perfetto ("The perfect disorder")?

My editor chose the title and I really love it actually. In England it is called Finding Moonshine because it's a quote from a play that I love, A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare, and also there is a mathematical idea, something called moonshine which is the climax of the book. And the Italian title I rather like because it what that sums up that tension in mathematics between everything looking so disordered and chaotic and yet so perfect because it just has to be like that. So I think it really is a title that catches the beautiful tension in mathematics between things with a lot structure yet with complexity.

Do you know Wikipedia? What do you think of it?

My impression is that science in Wikipedia has an incredible high standard. And I think it is scientists of different levels - senior, junior - taking their time to record things on Wikipedia. Early on there was a lot of mistrust about how accurate something created by the public for the public could be. But I think the evidence is that in mathematics and science it has an incredibly high standard. I really think it's incredible valuable tool for people exploring mathematical ideas. When I get questions from general readers about some of a little bit more technical side of - say - things about primes it'll be either Wikipedia, that I would refer them to for some more details or another (right good) website which has great mathematical material which is Wolfram Creative Mathematica have a very good encyclopaedic resource for mathematics. That is slightly more technical maybe than Wikipedia. They together I think do a great service.

This is the article about you on the English Wikipedia. What do you think of it?

It is very interesting, there are funny little details - pretty things - which people pick up, for example the school that I went to, that's great – you know – I went to the State Comprehensive School called Gillot (which nobody probably has heard of). It gives people a little bit more history to where I come from. Somebody has picked up one particular article that I wrote in a American magazine. It's kind of curious why picked up one article when I wrote hundreds of other articles, it's slightly curious. So I think Wikipedians can get skewed, in some sense, because some people see one particular aspect instead of others. But everything's accurate here. And the good thing is that it provides many external links: you got access to find out more.

This is the article about your book The Music of the Primes...

It's pretty accurate again. You can tell there's an American influence here because they picked up the American subtitle. In England it is called The Music of the Primes: Why a Problem in Mathematics Matters and this one is Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.