Marcus du Sautoy, OBE, is the Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He is known for his efforts in popularizing mathematics and has been named by The Independent on Sunday as one of the UK’s leading scientists. He was a recipient of the London Mathematical Society’s prestigious Berwick Prize in 2001, which is awarded every two years to reward the best mathematical research by a mathematician under forty.
Du Sautoy writes for the Times and the Guardian and has presented numerous television and radio programmes, including The Story of Maths, School of Hard Sums and The Code. He is also the author of many academic articles and books including the best-selling The Music of the Primes and The Num8er My5teries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life.
When mathematician Marcus du Sautoy was appointed the prestigious role of the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford back in October 2008, he had two distinct priorities looming prominently in his mind.
The job brief was clear in its motives at the time and reflected on the one-hand high-level science, and on the other, the ability to communicate this scientific research widely to a public audience. The latter was the first priority. Stepping into fill the boots of the inaugural holder Richard Dawkins, was by no means an easy feat, but du Sautoy also a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, took to the role naturally.
“When I took over from Richard, my immediate thoughts were on clearly communicating to the public what was happening in science,” says du Sautoy. “Science has such a big impact on humanity. In order for people to feel empowered and for them to be able to make decisions on where they want science to go and the long lasting effects it has on society, they must first fully understand the surrounding issues.”
The second role of his job, encouraging the communication of science between disciplines within the sciences, is perhaps the most intriguing, in terms of developments. The biggest challenges, du Sautoy says, are the “inbuilt education system” and the “linguistic barriers” across the sciences. “This is a fascinating area where across academia we’re looking to break down the silo mentality which I believe has been prevalent in most universities across the world”, asserts du Sautoy. “This is partly due to the time and hard work we put into our own specialist subject meaning there often isn’t time to see what’s happening in other areas.”
Crossing Scientific Language Barriers
At the University of Oxford, du Sautoy has been influential in making sure conversations are cross departmental and that there is a critical forum for those not just in sciences, but also in the humanities. Through facilitating conversation groups, including a striving mathematical biology cohort and regular podcast debates around four different scientific subject areas, there have been many lessons learned.
“What’s very interesting is quite the extent of the language barrier there is across the sciences and that is partly what breaking down these barriers is about,” observes du Sautoy. “It is about thinking in a different way, learning about what each other do and going out of the normal comfort zone to get into the mind-set of another scientist. It is through facilitating the contacts between disciplines and departments which I think will create the big breakthroughs in science as we go into the next decade. Research councils and the Royal Society realise this and what’s exciting is that many of the low lying fruits are in the narrow borders between subjects, where we might find the new discoveries quite quickly, if we are asking questions that have never been asked before.”
It is through some of the pressing global issues, such as energy, population growth, and food that du Sautoy believes this joined up approach within the humanities and sciences will be beneficial and lead to exciting progress. His gripe with the educational system is that it compartmentalises subject areas, which he insists is hindering the understanding that there are huge connections between individual subjects, which he describes as “one continuous spectrum.”
Named one of the UK’s leading scientists by the Independent on Sunday, the London-born professor has become the true face of mathematics popularising the subject through BBC television and radio programmes including a succession of Horizon documentaries, newspaper columns in the Times and Guardian, books such as the bestseller The Music of the Primes, and inspired talks and school tours. It is this knack and enthusiasm for simplistic creative storytelling, such as his children’s lecture on ‘Why Beckham chose the 23 shirt’ that has made du Sautoy a popular figure with the media.
Du Sautoy admits that universities need to do a much better job at training scientists to communicate and become storytellers. Since Charles Simonyi created the role at the University of Oxford in the mid-nineties, numerous other similar positions have sprung up at other UK universities. “I think in recent years, there has been a definite push from universities towards increasing scientific dialogue with the public and dedicating positions to promote the idea of science in society, seen through the appointments of the likes of Jim Al-Khalili and Alice Roberts”, notes du Sautoy.
“I think communication should be a fundamental part of any scientists training as frankly it benefits your own science. Science, in my mind, has always been about two things, discovery and communication. As scientists we have to learn how to emphasise with a public audience for them to fully understand and to acknowledge the ideas we are seeing. The broader audience science can reach, the bigger the benefit in terms of the new ideas you are transmitting as a scientist.”
The “wonder of science” is something du Sautoy passionately advocates for and believes is the inspiration behind “so many exciting” stories and programmes, which are widening the fascination and curiosity in science within the public domain. “It is heartening to see scientific stories being told by practising scientists on television. I think that’s why we become scientists because we’re animated by the stories that we’re reading and those that are unfinished that we want to contribute to. The excitement of making new discoveries and then seeing its impact on us as a society is so important to this.”
“I think we’ve managed to capture this well, people are not turning on BBC programmes about science or reading the books that we write because they feel they have to, because it’s important, they are doing it because they find it fascinating and entertaining and want to understand. The knock on effect is that the public is then in a much better position to make judgements on what we should be doing about the energy crisis or whether we should give the okay to stem cell research.”
He cheerily summarises, “It is a particularly positive time in Britain for science.”
Marcus du Sautoy’s 2009 TED talk. Courtesy of TED.