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World renowned mathematician speaks on the universe’s language

There is more to mathematics than the regular numeric calculations and textbook interpretations. Mathematics is the language of the universe, explained Professor Marcus du Sautoy during the 18th Friday Forum at the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies in Phuentsholing.

Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

“It helps us to understand the universe,” he said. “Nature is doing mathematics.”

One of the simplest examples of mathematics people always come across, Professor Marcus du Sautoy pointed out was the universally popular shape of the hexagon.

A beehive and a snowflake are hexagonal and there is a modest reason to why it is like that. In the case of the beehive, it is a costly matter for the bees to make wax. It takes a lot of time and energy. But the hexagon uses the least amount of wax. The professor explained that this tactic was nature’s way of working in the most efficient manner.

Elaborating further on nature and mathematics, Sautoy described nature as a “lazy person” as it is always looking for the most efficient techniques so that less energy is consumed.

The sphere is another example of how nature is using mathematics to save energy. The sphere has the smallest surface area of all shapes so that the energy used is the lowest.

It was Sautoy’s childhood dream of travelling to different parts of the world that led him to mathematics. Initially, he wanted to learn as many languages as he could and signed up for numerous language classes.

However, a teacher later introduced him to mathematics and recommended a book. There was no stopping him after that.

Sautoy has also authored books such as The Music of the Primes and Finding Moonshine. His latest work is What We Cannot Know which was published last year.

“I was surprised to know mathematics as a language,” Sautoy said, adding that math is linked to the secret of efficiency.

The human race understands that nature uses less energy, and so humans can and have been exploiting this.

There are geometric and numeric expressions of mathematics. Symmetry in terms of geometry, for example, is the language to communicate. A symmetric arrangement of a flower, for instance, attracts bees.

“Perfect symmetry in a face is a sign of beauty,” Sautoy said. “Symmetry communicates information among people.”

Citing Carl Jung’s explanation of the mandala as the psychological expression of the totality of the self, Sautoy explained that the mandala is “full of symmetry.”

During the forum, the mathematician also dwelled on the Fibonacci numbers and prime numbers, which he said were nature’s favourite numbers. Even before humans discovered these numbers, nature was always using these numbers, he said.

Sautoy pointed out that the insect, magicicada septendecim, cleverly uses prime numbers to avoid predators for survival. This insect hides in the ground and emerges only every 17 years. It breeds and dies after coming out of the ground.

There is also another insect species that comes out only once every 13 years.

Prime numbers are also used in decoding messages on the internet. “If you know your math, you survive in this world,” the professor said.

Answering a question from the audience in regards to mathematics and women, Sautoy said that it was important to break down the stereotype that only men are good at maths. Some of the best mathematicians in the world today are women, he pointed out.

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

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