Public invited to discussion of the importance of narrative in scientific proofs | University of Oxford

Public invited to discussion of the importance of narrative in scientific proofs

12 January 2015

Leading artists and scientists will come together on 20 January to explore how narrative shapes scientific proofs every bit as much as a work of literature.

The event will begin with one of the UK’s best known mathematicians, Marcus du Sautoy giving a presentation on “Proof and Narrative: Two Sides of the Same Equation”. He will argue that “Mathematics is more than just true statements about numbers. Why does a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem get celebrated as one of the great achievements of 20th century mathematics while an equally complicated calculation is regarded as mundane and uninteresting? Why is the proof more important than the result itself? It is not the QED but the pathway to that QED that mathematicians care about. Is the quality of the narrative journey of the proof actually what elevates a sequence of logically connected statements to be celebrated as mathematics? And what qualities does that narrative share with other narrative art forms?”

Literary techniques and mathematical proofs are rarely, if ever, brought together but Marcus du Sautoy is very interested in the qualities that the narrative of proofs share with other narrative art forms. In an unusually multidisciplinary panel, he will be joined by author Ben Okri, mathematician Roger Penrose, and literary scholar Laura Marcus, to consider how narrative underpins and nurtures the respective disciplines.

Elleke Boehmer, a novelist, critic and Professor of World Literature at the University of Oxford, who will be chairing the discussion, says “literary narrative and mathematical proof, far from being poles apart, in fact fall into intriguingly similar symbolic patterns: stage by stage sequences, tricky reversals, surprising denouements.  Indeed, we might go so far as asking ourselves to what extent proofs are in fact narratives of a kind, and narratives a form of proof.”

Rather than following the “two cultures” trend, which tends to polarise the sciences and humanities (often with negative results), this event will demonstrate that the disciplines share the same roots and can shape, and learn, from each other. Shearer West, Head of the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford, says that “bringing together the arts and sciences is crucial to the future of research. I am delighted that many students from schools across Oxford will be part of what promises to be a lively and stimulating occasion”.

This event is being co-hosted by The Oxford Research Centre of the Humanities (TORCH) and the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford. It marks the beginning of TORCH’s Annual Headline Series “Humanities and Science”, which will include a series of panel discussions exploring how points of methodological conversions can be used to address current research questions. For example, how can musicians use concepts about randomness and order developed by physicists and mathematicians to enrich their compositions? How far is the image showing a patient’s brain scan an aesthetic choice made by the clinician? How can humanities scholars and policy makers help engineers to explore the potential social and cultural impact of their innovations? 

The series will also celebrate existing research that crosses the humanities and sciences, in partnership with art galleries, museums and hospitals across Oxford. The “Narrative and Proof” event will be held in the recently opened Andrew Wiles Building, which itself signifies the coming together of art and science, as the beautiful architecture incorporates mathematical patterns. The “Penrose Paving”, which leads to the main entrance, is made up of non-repeating paving patterns conceived by Sir Roger Penrose, who will be speaking at the event.

The event will take place at 5 pm on Tuesday 20 January at the Andrew Wiles Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6GG. It is free and open to all. Registration is recommended. Visit The event will be chaired by Elleke Boehmer and will be followed by a drinks reception and audience questions.


Hannah Penny, Communications and Events Officer, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities - 01865 280101 Matt Pickles, Media Relations Manager, University of Oxford – 01865 280532

For more details about the event:

For more details about the “Humanities and Science” series:

Twitter:, #humsciox


Notes to Editors:

TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities is an interdisciplinary research centre based within the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford. It stimulates supports and promotes research activity of the very highest quality that transcends disciplinary and institutional boundaries and engages with wider audiences. TORCH is directed by Stephen Tuck (Professor of Modern History and author of The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union)

Mathematical Institute

The Mathematical Institute in Oxford over 850 undergraduates, more than 350 masters and doctoral postgraduate students, and over 170 faculty, research fellows and postdoctoral researchers studying and working across all fields of mathematics from Number Theory to understanding the mechanics of the human brain. The Head of Department is Professor Sam Howison.

Speakers’ bios

Marcus du Sautoy is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of New College. He is author of three books: The Music of the Primes, Finding Moonshine and most recently The Number Mysteries. He has presented numerous radio and TV series including a four part landmark TV series for the BBC called The Story of Maths, a three part series called The Code and programmes with comedians Alan Davies and Dara O’Briain. He has written and performed a new play called X&Y which has been staged in London’s Science Museum and Glastonbury Festival. In 2009 he was awarded the Royal Society’s Faraday Prize, the UK’s premier award for excellence in communicating science. He received an OBE for services to science in 2010.

Ben Okri CBE has published 8 novels, including The Famished Road and Starbook, as well as collections of poetry, short stories and essays. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been awarded the OBE as well as numerous international prizes, including the Booker Prize, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and the Chianti Rufino-Antico Fattore. He is a Vice-President of the English Centre of International PEN and was presented with a Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum.  

Sir Roger Penrose is an English mathematical physicist, mathematician and philosopher of science. He is known worldwide for his work in mathematical physics, in particular for his contributions to general relativity and cosmology. He has received a number of major international prizes and awards, including the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics, which he shared with Stephen Hawking for their contribution to our understanding of the universe.  

Professor Laura Marcus's research and teaching interests are predominantly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture, including life-writing, modernism, Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury culture, contemporary fiction, and literature and film. Her book publications include Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (1994), Virginia Woolf: Writers and their Work (1997/2004), The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period (2007) and, as co-editor, The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature (2004).  Her current research projects include a book on British literature 1910-1920, and a study of the concept of 'rhythm' in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, in a range of disciplinary contexts.  

Elleke Boehmer is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, and Professorial Governing Body Fellow at Wolfson College. She has published Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (1995, 2005), Empire, the National and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920 (2002), Stories of Women (2005), and Nelson Mandela (2008). She is the author of four acclaimed novels, including Screens again the Sky (short-listed David Hyam Prize, 1990), Bloodlines (shortlisted SANLAM prize), and Nile Baby (2008), and the short-story collection Sharmilla and Other Portraits (2010).  She edited Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys (2004), and the anthology Empire Writing (1998), and co-edited J.M. Coetzee in Writing and Theory (2009), Terror and the Postcolonial (2009), The Indian Postcolonial (2010), and The Postcolonial Low Countries (2012).  She is the General Editor of the Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures Series, and deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. A book on migration and identity, Indian Arrivals 1870-1915 and a fiction, The Shouting in the Dark, are forthcoming (both 2015).