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28 July 2021

Timothy Gowers: The man who changed Dominic Cummings’s mind on Covid-19

The Cambridge professor on how pure maths underpins the modern world. 

By Rachel Cunliffe

“When you see a flashy new building that gets built, you think about the architect,” said Timothy Gowers. “But you don’t think quite so much about the structural engineers who were involved in actually working out how such a building could be realised.”

For the Cambridge professor, pure mathematics – the study of mathematical concepts for their own sake – is the engineering that underpins the modern world. The high-tech breakthroughs that so excite politicians – in AI, robotics, biotech – are only possible thanks to the mathematical research that took place years or even decades earlier.

So when Leicester University announced it was ending pure maths research and making its pure mathematicians redundant in order to focus on glitzier areas of the Stem (science, tech, engineering and maths) subjects, Gowers was shocked. “An academic ecosystem without maths as part of its beating heart seems hard for us to imagine,” he told me when we spoke.

The fightback has already begun. In collaboration with the London Mathematical Society, the “Protect Pure Maths” campaign was launched on 9 July and aims to “preserve and promote pure maths in the UK”. And Gowers is one of its champions.

Gowers, 57, is a titan of the mathematical world. He has held prestigious posts at University College London, Princeton, and Collège de France, and won the Fields Medal (the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize) in 1998, aged just 34. In 2012, he was knighted for services to mathematics, and he has also won awards for his work popularising the subject for non-mathematicians.

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But observers of UK politics might know his name from another context: Dominic Cummings’s recent select committee grilling. When Boris Johnson’s former aide appeared before MPs in May, he was full of praise for Gowers, whom he described as “one of the smartest people on the planet”. Gowers had no role in government but in early March 2020 Cummings sent him Sage documents on the UK’s laissez-faire Covid strategy. Gowers responded with calculations showing how the NHS would inevitably be overwhelmed. This feedback, as Cummings told it, was instrumental in convincing No 10 to abandon its “herd immunity” strategy and impose a lockdown.

Gowers, however, dismisses any suggestion that his mathematical insights changed government policy.

“My note didn’t involve anything more than A-level maths, more or less,” he said. “It may have had some effect, but because Cummings was going that way and he needed the confidence to argue for ​it.”

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Cummings has admired Gowers for years, and recently suggested he should lead the UK’s new Advanced Research and Invention Agency. It is unclear whether the admiration is mutual – when I remind Gowers how highly Cummings rates him, he laughs nervously and says “no comment”.

He is much happier to talk about how maths has been key to tackling the pandemic. Over the past 17 months we’ve become accustomed to epidemiologists forecasting case numbers in different scenarios. We might be less familiar with the maths that underpins those models, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s simply that it was developed long before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19.

“When it comes to the theoretical analysis of how diseases spread in networks, a lot of that had been done. Because of pure mathematics, people didn’t suddenly have develop a whole theory of how diseases spread,” Gowers explained. “The mathematical side was ready because pure mathematicians had done the work.”

This isn’t the first time maths has been central to tackling a national crisis. This month marks the 80th anniversary of the final unlocking of the German Enigma machine, thanks to the work of Alan Turing and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. The abstract number problems which fascinated Turing proved vital to cracking the code and helped Britain win the war. Turing’s legacy lives on, both on the new £50 note, and in the UK government’s intelligence and cyber agency GCHQ, which today is one of the largest employers of pure mathematicians. (Gowers insists he has never worked for the intelligence services himself, though he adds: “I’m not sure whether I’d be allowed to tell you if I had, so I’m not sure whether you ought to be believe me.”)

[See also: “It’s the poorest in society who are being surveilled”: the quiet rise of citizen-scoring algorithms]

Once you start looking for the impact of pure maths, you find it everywhere. It’s behind the development of public key cryptography – the approach to encryption that enables everything from WhatsApp messages to digital payments. And anyone who has relied on Zoom or Skype should be grateful to the mathematicians who laid the groundwork for the methods of image compression that make video calls possible.

One of Gowers’s favourite examples is how work on “compressed sensing” was able to vastly speed up the calculations which turn the data from an MRI scan into a cross-sectional image that can be analysed. By dramatically reducing the time that had to be spent inside the scanner, he said, it has “saved children’s lives” (children find it notoriously difficult to stay still for long).

“In order to get the technological advances, you need applied mathematics, but in order for applied mathematicians to function, they need pure mathematicians to have done their job in the background,” he said.

And that’s why Gowers is so outraged by Leicester University’s decision, and so determined to champion a subject he finds both beautiful and indispensable. The work of pure mathematicians today could be crucial to solving challenges we can’t currently comprehend. And when those challenges arise, we need the maths to be ready.

[See also: Apple vs Facebook: how the war between the Silicon Valley giants is changing tech]

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special