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31 January 2024

Marcus du Sautoy Q&A: “As a child, I planned to marry Top Cat”

The mathematician and author on his love of symmetry, classical music and board games.

By New Statesman

Marcus du Sautoy was born in London in 1965. He is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, a post previously held by Richard Dawkins.

What’s your earliest memory?

The moon landing. My parents dragged me and my sister out of bed to watch it on our tiny black-and-white TV.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Top Cat. I planned to marry him when I was older. My adult hero is Christopher Zeeman, who was a brilliant mathematician and communicator.

What book last changed your thinking?

Non-things by Byung-Chul Han. I’ve been trying to adopt the Buddhist practice of non-attachment but Han’s book made me realise the importance of things, especially in our digital world. Humans need to hold things in their hands. It explains why we still love playing board games.

Which political figure do you look up to?

The writers I read in Marxism Today in the 1980s, who were responsible for my political awakening: Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm and Martin Jacques.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Paris, 30 May 1832, when I would have the chance to save the mathematician and revolutionary Évariste Galois from being shot in a duel. Before his death at the age of 20, Galois had created the language that I use every day to understand symmetry. How much more mathematics might he have given us had he not been shot?

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Games. I collect games wherever I travel. They are a wonderful way to understand the culture, character and history of the different people around the world.

What TV show could you not live without?

University Challenge. I had the honour recently of presenting the trophy to the winning team and even featured as an answer to one of the questions.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d be intrigued to see how an algorithm might represent who I am.

What’s your theme tune?

“The Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre. I saw the complete Ring Cycle in concert in Bayreuth last summer and my head is still ringing with Wagner’s leitmotifs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The headmaster at my school always said to find what you love doing and to dedicate yourself to pursuing that passion.

What’s currently bugging you?

Is the zeta function of a free nilpotent group finitely uniform? It’s a mathematical conjecture that I’ve been working on for decades. I used to think the answer was yes but recent work I’ve done with a colleague in Korea has changed my mind.

What single thing would make your life better?

£40k. I’ve written a play about one of my mathematical heroes, André Weil. I’ve got the chance to take it on tour in India, where part of the story takes place, but I need to raise a lot of money to make it happen. 

When were you happiest?

Whenever I am sitting round the table with my family, playing games. 

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Composer. I very nearly chose to train as a musician rather than a mathematician. 

Are we all doomed?

Is AI our friend or foe? I am a tech optimist, but I worry about the huge disruption this new technology will cause.

“Around the World in 80 Games” by Marcus du Sautoy is published by Fourth Estate

[See also: Caroline Campbell Q&A: “I’d love to be able to teleport safely”]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State