Marcus du Sautoy’s Mathematics Professor at Oxford University is famed for popularizing Maths. The second part of the interview with The Bhutanese Editor, Tenzing Lamsang goes beyond the classroom and takes up a wider area for Maths. Marcus was in Bhutan for a short visit on the invitation of the Royal Tutorial Project under His Majesty’s Secretariat.
In your College at Oxford as a student you got first class in mathematics. Any tips for our students here on achieving that?
Marcus: I have to work hard to make the breakthroughs that I do and actually I think sometimes when it is hard it is more rewarding when you get the answer. You have to put in the practice just like with any good discipline like meditation, musical instruments sports. You can’t become a great footballer overnight of you don’t practice.
You need to put in that work but I think it is about the middle way. When I was at University I also did other things. I also enjoyed playing music, I did theater and I also played sports. I think that helped to be able to take you mind of things. You concentrate very hard for four hours and for four hours you need to let your mind be. Otherwise you get stuck in a particular way of thinking. Sometimes you need to be able to go and then come back. Often I find that if I am stuck in something, I think about something else and when I come back to it I see a new way. You have to have dreams and goals but then in the end you need to work hard.
You have used the media in England effectively to communicate science and maths. How can this be done in Bhutan?
Marcus: What we found is that there is an appetite. The BBC aren’t making programs because they feel they have to but because there are people who want to watch those programs. I had a column in the Times Newspaper for several years about science and maths and people wanted to read it. So I would suggest that the mathematicians coming through or maybe some of the teachers once a week can have a short story about something mathematical in Bhutan in the newspapers. Things like why the buildings have maths in them or the importance of certain numbers and I think those just fascinate people. So I think there is an appetite but often the media will be circumspect because they are too often from an arts background but I think it is worth experimenting. Let’s see if people would like a little bit of science stories in the newspapers.
A lot of good mathematicians and science students are coming from countries like India and China. Are they doing something right or is it just a matter of the higher numbers?
Marcus: I think we do celebrate it. I certainly do in the media and say that India and China are producing a lot of mathematicians. I think what they are doing is that they are valuing mathematics. Within their society parents want their children to be good at maths because they understand that maths is the potential for so many things- for economic prosperity, for personal self, for country but talking to Indian teachers they say ‘Yes, but I am not sure we are doing right because we have students who can follow rules amazingly and do calculus but they aren’t adaptable so they don’t have the adaptability if the situation suddenly changes and the rules doesn’t apply’. It is only with understanding that you can adapt the methods and change and do something new and I think they worry about the creativity of their mathematicians.
One thing that a lot of students look at before choosing a subject like maths for further specialization is on the potential career paths. Your experience and advice on this?
Marcus: I think the most important thing is to choose something that you enjoy doing because once you enjoy doing something then and you are passionate about it then the other things will follow. You will find your path to the career that you want to do. And I think sometimes we think too much about the job and it takes us in a direction studying something we don’t really enjoy and then you don’t succeed. So I would say maths of course is going to be useful for so many things. I mean there is no set career path for a mathematician but I would say choose maths because you love it and not because you think it is going to be useful.
Improving math is fine as the first step. Once we have these brilliant math students what can the government and the economy do to use them effectively?
Marcus: I find that in many companies t if they have a mathematician for an interview they already give that person respect because they appreciate their way of thinking. In a way as soon as you have got people who are good at maths your country will use them and I don’t think you have to try very hard. Any company will benefit from having mathematical ways of thinking. Certainly engineers and more broadly too – I mean look at Pixar animation. One thing is I asked the Education minister to consider the idea of coding and he said he was. All the apps on your phones and other things which are facilitating us are very mathematical. That does not require resources other than a good mind like in the IT Industry. The resources you have got are your children and people and if you can spark them you have got energy there.
Math is the stem subject of things that are going to transform society. Brazil has recognized that and the government there translated mangahigh.com into Portuguese. They know that if they have good mathematicians their economy will flourish.
Your predecessor Richard Dawkins took a more confrontational line against science skeptics like the religious lobby in USA that questioned evolution etc. How do you handle the attempted fight back by the religious right against science?
Marcus: So I have taken a slightly different approach which is I think confrontation can be very good and exciting in challenging the wrong ways of thinking but I think there is another way to do it as well which is a more collaborative way. Very often people have misconceptions because they don’t have the evidence and it is important to show them why. Don’t just tell them the science but explain why we believe in evolution. Tell them why we believe the big bang happened. Tell them why we believe in climate change. It is much harder to counter that.
But I think it also requires being sensitive to things that they value that are not necessary to attack. So sometimes confrontation can cause people to be more extreme. So I think it is good to find the bridges and connections and that will help. Our scientific arguments will then speak for themselves. I think giving them respect is important. But that does not mean I give in to crazy things they say. I will respect perhaps where they are coming form and will see where we can find common ground.
In your talk you pointed out the use of math in everyday lives. Going at a more abstract level is our thought processes like strategy, social skills etc also a kind of math?
Marcus: Yes, definitely, and in fact it is what the heart of maths is which is that it is a way of thinking, it is a way of making logical steps. You want to tease out what the consequences is of your actions. That’s what maths is, it’s the best tool we have for looking into the future and planning. It is like building a bridge, which is why we use maths. We don’t want to just build a bridge and see how it works but we think ahead and see what the consequences. That applies to many things. I think it applies in strategy in government which is incredibly mathematical. Don’t do trial and error, use mathematics, you want to think through the consequences and then see if this is the right path.
What interested you to come back to Bhutan given your busy schedule?
Marcus: When I was here a year and a half ago with my family we fell in love with the country. I turned 50 here, it was a very moving place and I think that I really appreciated the culture here and I wanted to spend more time here. I have gone back and tried to get rid of my possessions and not be attached to things.
But let me also tell you another reason. I felt that this is a place that as an individual I might be able to have an impact because you have a population of 700,000 and with a few visits I could possibly talk to every maths teacher and so I felt that there was something I could do to help. And let me tell you another reason, because I was excited by your curriculum I was excited by the vision of your education department and I felt that this is what is close to what I want to do with a curriculum. So I am excited to see whether it is going to help and make your society fall in love with maths.
I would like to come back again with my family and wife especially. My wife is a psychologist and she uses mindfulness and Buddhist practice in psychology and so she is very keen to come back.