Marcus du Sautoy

The Num8er My5teries is Marcus du Sautoy’s latest book.  In The UK, and as far as mathematics goes, du Sautoy is about as famous as Isaac Newton.  For those yet to come across him, he is Professor of Mathematics at The University of Oxford and Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. Marcus’s passion for mathematics is totally infectious.  I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Finding Moonshine’, but this book has something to offer for younger readers.  I would recommend this for students of 10 years and above, yet there is plenty to keep mathematics graduates entertained too.

The book is divided into 5 chapters, each starting at basic high school mathematics level as we are led through some interesting puzzles and facts and working towards an insight into  The Millennium Prize Problems.   In the chapter, ‘The Case of the Uncrackable Code’ we learn about the Enigma machine, how Coldplay got the Baudot code wrong on the cover of their X&Y album and how codes help us check for typing errors for ISBN codes.

Create your own Coldplay Baudot Code at http://www.ditonus.com/coldcode/

This is how Coldplay's album should have looked.  The Baudot code for the album's image was X9Y!

My favourite section of the book is his explanation of credit card security on the internet.  Du Sautoy’s strength is his ability to communicate his subject knowledge as he leads us gently through prime factorisation and modular arithmetic to show us how this is possible.  This chapter concludes with a layman’s explanation of the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture about elliptic curves.  In other chapters we go from prime numbers to The Riemann Hypothesis, interesting geometrical shapes to The Poincaré Conjecture and winning streaks to P vs NP Problem.

I loved the story of the three Eastern Europeans who used a laser scanner hidden inside a mobile phone and mathematics to make a killing at a roulette wheel in the London Ritz casino and learning that flipping a coin is not actually a 50-50 event (because of the gyroscopic behaviour of the spinning coin it is more likely to land on the up facing side).

Du Sautoy tries to bring the printed book into the 21st century by including a number of additional features.  The book is littered with QR codes, web addresses that can be scanned with smartphones allowing ‘readers’ to listen to music, play games and puzzles and explore other interactive features that the static page struggles to portray.  For example, this applet simulates a WWII German Enigma encryption machine.

An accompanying iPhone app has also been created based around many games of strategy that appear in the book:

A word of warning: have a little pad and a pencil at hand whilst you are reading this book to try some of the mathematics for yourself.  You could even win yourself \$1m!

Here are a couple of activities on our site that exploit some of the ideas in this book

### John Allen Paulos

As maths teachers we are used to the question 'Why do we need to know this' coming up in our classes. From my experience this question is usually a sign of an activity not quite going as well as I had hoped! The need for and infact the definition of 'context' makes for a fascinating debate. Often a really good activity trumps the question above, but not always. As such I, like most I imagine, have been through a whole range of different answers to that question. Some are deeply tenous, some are uninspiring, some are too complex to get across and when I am lucky I manage to get across the power and beauty of mathematics both as a way of thinking and as a powerful tool for understanding the world we live in.

In his timeless book 'A mathematician reads the newspaper' John Allen Paulos demonstrates this second point with some startling reality by examining 'the news' from a mathematican's point of view. In doing so he makes us aware of many things including, the frequency with which journalism abuses mathematics, the frequency with which journalism misunderstands mathematics, the frequency of profound mathematical error in the media and the real importance of understanding mathematics if one is to understand the news that is reported to us. This is done in a very readable, approachable and enjoyable style that is a lovely commentary on some aspects of society at the same time.

Book reccomendations are fantastic, but I know in my case, they loiter around my desk for undefined amounts of time until I act upon them. I wish I had acted sooner on this one. It has pride of place in my classroom and I often read aloud from to my students to help them in one sense answer the question before they ask it and in another to highlight how some peoples carrers revolve around mathematics in a way that students may not have previously considered. Every classroom should have a copy.

@John Allen Paulos is also on twitter, where you can follow links to articles he writes and to other thoughtful reflections of a similar nature on the net.