Inside the mathemagical labyrinth | University of Oxford
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OSB archive

Inside the mathemagical labyrinth

Pete Wilton

It isn’t every day that you learn tips for winning at Monopoly, see four-dimensional paintings, and discover how Messiaen’s music relates to the life cycle of cicadas.

But then yesterday saw a series of special events for schools and the public, organised by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, to celebrate Marcus du Sautoy’s inaugural lecture as Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.

The core message of Marcus’s evening lecture, which he sets out in this article in The Times, is that maths is the language of the universe, and that it binds scientific and artistic cultures together.

What I think anyone attending any of the day’s events took away with them was that maths and science are our culture, that they can’t be separated from everyday life: if you’ve ever played a game of chance, or listened to music, or been awestruck by the beautiful shapes in nature or architecture then you’ve experienced some of the same mathematical structures that fascinate mathematicians and scientists.

Mathemagicians & winning streaks
Yesterday morning saw 50 pupils aged 11-14 from schools in Oxford, Leamington Spa, Leicester, Brighton and Hackney arrive ready to have fun, and learn something.

Their first stop was the University’s Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum. Both do excellent work with families and schools and the Madagascan hissing cockroaches, some of the stars of this year’s Oxford Science Roadshow, once again stole the show.

After the museum tours it was time for lunch with the post-lunch entertainment provided by Marcus’s Marvellous Mathemagicians [M3].

The Mathemagicians are Oxford maths students on a mission: to communicate their passion for their subject to the next generation. Their show was inspired by Marcus’s Christmas Lecture on the winning streak and how to win – or stand less chance of losing – at various games.

Thomas Woolley kicked off proceedings, explaining how, in the unlikely event you do get lucky in the National Lottery, a truly random choice of numbers could snag you the jackpot.

Then Christina Goodwin took charge of a giant Monopoly board and, using a sparkly top hat for a counter and getting volunteers to roll giant dice, demonstrated how probability makes some properties better earners than others.

David Blane played the chocolate game, in which contestants had to learn how not to be stuck with a poisoned chocolate bar, and Jamie Humphries challenged all comers to beat him at the pie game – then explained his secret winning strategy.

Picking primes
In the afternoon it was off to hear Marcus give his interactive talk on ‘Why Beckham Chose 23’, an exploration of the power of prime numbers in nature, and on the way we think.

With the numbers 1-100 spread across the floor of Holywell Music Room, it was up to the pupils to move a toy monkey as a marker, playing prime number hopscotch to understand the patterns behind the number sequences.

They also learnt about cicadas, and how these insects have evolved a life cycle based around prime numbers in order to outwit predators. By appearing only every 17 years cicadas are guaranteed to avoid a predator most often – in fact they’re so successful that the predator they evolved to avoid may have died out.

Yesterday evening Marcus returned to prime numbers and cicadas in his inaugural lecture as part of a discussion of the relationship between music, art, maths, and science.

In his Quartet for the End of Time Messiaen used the prime numbers 17 and 19 to create harmonies that, like the cicada and its predator, would be out of step and so sound timeless. Marcus said: ‘I cannot believe that he was aware that the 12-note sequences he uses are the basis for generating one of the strangest mathematical objects… But it is a sensitivity to similar structures that drew him to these two themes.’

The sound of a cube
Some composers take a more consciously mathematical approach: we heard an excerpt from Xenakis’s Nomos Alpha in which the composer attempts to reproduce the sound of a cube on the cello.

Because symmetry controls the shapes we can create, architects and painters have long been fascinated by mathematical ideas.

Marcus gave the example of how Renaissance painters recovered the Archimedean solids and Dali tried to create on his 2D canvas a representation of a 4-dimensional object – the tesseract. Anyone too who has enjoyed the feeling of space in one of Palladio’s villas or marvelled at a Corbusier building is witnessing mathematical ideas transformed into physical space.

As he pointed out, understanding maths and science is now more important than ever, as we need to use it to make predictions about how diseases will spread, how our climate will change, or what new particles may pop into existence inside the LHC.

Marcus commented: ‘It is one of my aspirations during the tenure of my professorship to encourage government, research councils and universities that the more scientific ambassadors we can support the better chance we have of integrating the foreign world of science with the rest of society.'

'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.’

For more about the Simonyi Professorship go to the Simonyi homepage 

Find out more about the mathemagicians and how to book them here

Photos from the day courtesy of Gail Anderson