Marcus Du Sautoy had the attention of the audience at the Banquet Hall, photo credit- Ugyen Dorji(Highlander)

‘Maths at its best when it is creative, full of stories and imagination’

Mathematics, too often, strikes a combination of fear and boredom in many students in Bhutan.

However, that was to change on Saturday evening on 18th March as Professor Marcus Du Sautoy (OBE)  from Oxford University, with an international reputation and body of work in popularizing maths,  kept a hall full of students interested and engaged in an almost two hour lecture on mathematics.

The level of interest from students was apparent as many got up enthusiastically to ask questions during the question and answer session.

The venue in the Banquet hall in Thimphu had a student friendly atmosphere as scouts greeted students at the outer and inner entrances.

The visit and event organized by The Royal Tutorial Project under His Majesty’s Secretariat saw it being graced by Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuck as the Chief guest and as a symbol of Royal support to the initiative.

Everyone expected the lecture to start with Maths but the professor instead opened with a childhood determination of his to be a 007 spy or a James Bond, travel the world and talk to fellow spies.

Pursuing this ambition the professor as a young student took up a variety of foreign language courses in school like French, German, Latin and Russian. However, he did not get very far with a jumble of different spellings and verbs that did not make much sense nor follow any logical rules.

Marcus said the big moment for change came for him at the age of around 12 or 13 when his maths teacher took him aside and said that maths was not just about multiplications, divisions, rules etc but there was a lot more. This was when he was first introduced to a book called, ‘The Language of Mathematics,’ by Frank Land.

It was then that Marcus picked up and understood Maths as a language and unlike grammar it did not have rules that did not make sense but in Maths everything was about logic.

“Maths is the language of the Universe,” declared the Professor.

He gave the example of maths in nature as he showed the image of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Irelands where nature naturally formed hexagons made of basalt rocks.

Marcus pointed out that even bees have hexagon shaped honey cells as it uses the least amount of wax for the area inside. He also credited bees with using maths to do the ‘waggle dance’ whereby they point out the direction of nectar to their hive members who decode the dance.

The professor pointed out that the presence of certain shapes like Hexagon are not random and they are even visible in the molecular structure of water or H20.

Taking another example of a plentiful structure in nature Marcus said that nature loved spheres like rain drops etc because they required lower energy to form then other shapes and so was efficient. The professor said that in that way nature is very efficient.

Man in fact used nature’s preference in technology where in earlier times hot metal was dropped from a ‘Shot Tower’, and by the time it fell in the water below it formed perfect metal spheres or ball bearings.

He said that given the strength of spheres, structures that needed to resist a lot of pressure like deep water submarines or deep water diver’s helmets or for that matter eggs, all had a spherical shape.

Marcus also pointed to symmetry as an example of maths in nature. He said that though bees had poor eyesight they could recognize symmetry well, which is why flowers are shaped in the way they are and also have five petals.

He also gave the example of symmetry in a Mandala quoting Carl Jung who said, “A Manadala is the psychological expression of the totality of the self.” Giving another example of symmetry he said even at the smallest level viruses like the Herpes virus have a symmetrical shape.

Giving an example of a Arab carpet where symmetry showed the errors on an area of the carpet he said the mathematics of symmetry allowed NASA to get clearer images from space by using error correcting codes on the image.

Sticking to nature, Marcus introduced ‘Fractals,’ through the shape of the human lungs and a growing tree branching out. He said that the human lung is very efficient as it uses Fractals to cover a large surface area of almost a football field in a small confined space. He said that even lightening is an example of a fractal shape as the lightening branches out. Giving the example of the practical application of fractals Marcus said it was used by Pixar for animation where mathematicians were equally used along aside artists.

Marcus introduced the audience to Fibonacci numbers like 3, 5 etc not just as a theoretical concept but also gave it in examples like its presence in the number of flower petals or the shapes inside pineapples, apples, oranges etc. He talked of buildings being constructed using the number, good music being made and also snails using the number to grow.

Going into the magic of Prime numbers the example of a Cicada in North America was given which used prime numbers to avoid coming out of ground at the same time as its predator and in doing so it outlasted its predator.

He also said that since prime numbers are unpredictable they were used in music to get sense of tension in the musical notes, in cryptography codes, GPS, Google and medical equipment to check for consciousness.

Marcus said that while maths could predict and explain a lot it still cannot determine certain things like the movement pattern of a double pendulum.

In response to a question on which mathematician inspired him Marcus said it was Evariste Galois, a young French mathematician whose work on Group theory did a lot for the world of symmetry. He said the mathematician diesd at the age of 20, after a duel in 1832.

In response to another question he said that everyone has a math brain and an inner mathematician inside them. He said that it is a way of thinking critically. Marcus said that the current development in teaching Maths is to give it a context and story. He said one has to pour love into the subject and while one is inspired it is important to also do the hard work.

On a question of religion and maths Marcus said that if there is a God then he or she must be a mathematician given its presence in nature.

On how Algorithm could help find a cure to cancer Marcus said that maths is already being used to decode the genome which gives vital information on what makes a person vulnerable to cancer and the next step would be to see if those specific genomes can be turned off.

Marcus said that maths is at its best when it is creative, when it is full of imagination when it is full of stories and when it is done for the joy of doing maths for its own sake.

He said the utility and technology will come later. He said one should study math for the love of it and not because one can use it.

Michael Rutland (OBE) of the Royal Tutorial Project giving the concluding remarks said that His Majesty The King was concerned that many students do not like maths and get low marks in the subject.

Marcus, apart from the talk in Thimphu and another in Phuentsholing, had special sessions for math teachers in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha all of which is also on tape and will be shared further. He also made five episodes with the Royal Tutorial Project focused around maths which will be telecast on BBS.

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