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20/12/2014

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The new professor

Marcus du Sautoy talks to Wendy Barnaby

‘I am holding this telephone at the moment with a broken hand’, Marcus du Sautoy tells me. ‘Both my football teams would testify to the fact that I am the person in the team who goes in for the crunching tackles, and am put in a position on the field which is basically to get stuck in.’

The new Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University is assuring me he has the stomach to grapple with whatever challenges might present themselves in his new job.

So far, these have been the ones facing most scientists who decide to become heavily involved with public engagement and the media.

‘It takes quite a lot to stick your head above the parapet and do as much as I have done, especially coming from the field of mathematics that I come from. There is a fear about being imprecise,’ he says. ‘You’re going to have to be ready to take the rap of your colleagues and develop quite a thick skin sometimes.’    

Team backing

Critics there may be, but he also has many supporters amongst his community.

‘The nay-sayers and nit-pickers are a minority, unable to distinguish teaching mathematics from making the public aware of it,’ says Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick. ‘Precision … is not the way to make non-specialists aware that mathematics is vital to our society and has played a significant cultural role for centuries. I admire Marcus for getting the job done and ignoring the pedants.’

Last October, the public voted with its remote controls for du Sautoy’s TV series, The Story of Maths, which was watched by over half a million viewers. This media foray had a happier outcome than many. The media is, according to Chris Budd, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Bath, more problematic for public engagement than the maths community.

 ‘We constantly have to convince the media that maths is worth covering and to take maths in any way seriously,’ he says. ‘The trivialisation of maths tends to come from those elements of the media who are simply not aware of what maths is and what it can do. It is very hard, though not impossible, to present maths in a fun and exciting way without losing some of its depth and importance. Here Marcus has done a great job.'

Out of the box

Du Sautoy is prepared to go way beyond his area of expertise in talking to the media. ‘It’s important that people realise that scientists aren’t some separate little community which doesn’t engage with broader issues in the world,’ he says. On occasional Wednesday nights, he joins presenter Richard Bacon at 11pm on BBC Radio 5 Live to chew over current affairs: the Middle East, for example.

‘Basically the Middle East peace process is a good example of game theory,’ says du Sautoy. ‘It’s about finding a stable equilibrium with which all parties are happy.  I’m not saying I’ve got the answer, but one thing scientists are quite good at is moving laterally and thinking of things in new ways.’

Tackling the issues

It becomes obvious during our conversation how du Sautoy is prepared to get stuck in.  In view of the current Darwin celebrations, does he think teachers should discuss creationism in school?  ‘I think as scientists we should be robust enough to engage with anybody’s proposals for the way the world works,’ he replies.  ‘If that means that children in school are going to raise ideas of creationism, I don’t think there’s a problem in engaging with it.’

In his new job the professor will not, it seems, be spending much time on the sidelines.

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Wendy Barnaby
Wendy Barnaby is Editor of People & Science
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