Posted by: jbwuk | March 5, 2010

Tania Hershman on The Universal Language of Mathematics

Celebrity mathematicians, oh my! The first thrill was to see how many people turned up to hear Marcus du Sautoy at Sunday’s session, The Universal Language of Mathematics. I know I’ve been out of the loop for a while – 15 years in Jerusalem – but I would never have imagined such a turnout for a mathematician (yes I will keep saying that) at Jewish Book Week, which is not a conference on mathematics. As someone who studied mathematics and physics, I wish I’d had du Sautoy as my teacher. I somehow developed a love for numbers despite school maths lessons. But hearing du Sautoy maybe me fall in love with maths all over again.

He was excellently interviewed by George Szpiro, author of Poincaré’s PrizeThe Secret Life of Number and Kepler’s Conjecture, neither of which I have yet read but aim to. It was hard for me as someone who already loves maths and numbers to accurately assess how the audience was responding – and who the audience was! But du Sautoy is so likeable and endearing and for this crowd I am sure that the fact that he has an Israeli wife, that he did his PhD in Jerusalem, that his kids got to JFS and that he was wearing a T-shirt which said “Tel Aviv” in Hebrew and English certainly paved the way.

As well as being Professor of Mathematics at Oxford Uni, du Sautoy has taken over from the rather controversial Richard Dawkins as is new Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Du Sautoy seemed very excited about his new role, and talked about what he thought was wrong with mathematics being taught in schools. Part of it, he said, is that in English you read Shakespeare, all the classics… but kids don’t get taught about the “Shakespeares” in mathematics, by which he meant all the Great Unsolved Problems that are still out there such as those that will net the winner $1 million if they solve one. Fermat’s Last Theorem, put forward by Fermat in the 17th century, was one of these great problems which was only solved in 1995. The excitement of maths, said du Sautoy, is not always about what we know, but about what we don’t know, what we can’t prove yet – if ever. Why would I do maths, he said, if I knew all the answers?

Talking about mathematical objects such as the “Monster” in 196,883 dimensions, he said anyone can be taught to “see” in more than our regular number of dimensions, but he didn’t quite manage to convince us all! I am sure if he had more than an hour, he would have. Du Sautoy said he wants to be the “Jamie Oliver” of school mathematics, enacting a revolution, and I really wish him well in his endeavour. I would love everyone to get the same thrill from number talk as I do, instead of seeing mathematicians as another species, speaking an alien tongue. I bought his new book, Finding Moonshine, after the session, which is both about maths and about being a mathematician. I can’t wait to read it.

Tania Hershman is a writer of short stories, some of which have been published, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and won various competitions. Her debut collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction. She is founder and editor of The Short Review, a journal devoted to shining the spotlight on short story collections.

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