Maths isn't just for textbooks

Nowadays it's the inspiration for films, novels and art. But where do footballers' shirts enter the equation?

Persi Diaconis, now of Stanford and Harvard Universities, once made his living this way. As a teenage prodigy, he toured the US as junior sidekick to one of the most famous magicians of the age. Then, via gamblers' after-hours talk of odds and probability, the sorcerer's apprentice caught the maths bug and took the first steps towards a career in another sort of spotlight. Diaconis was the expert who unmasked the delusions behind the so-called "Bible Codes" (which supposedly revealed hidden meanings within the text), but today in the Aegean, he's merely baffling his peers.

He chucks a deck of cards towards this highly qualified audience. It's caught by Timothy Gowers, a professor at Cambridge and recipient of a Fields Medal - the maths equivalent of a Nobel Prize. Gowers cuts the pack, takes the top card, then passes it to a neighbouring titan, who himself passes it on. After five cuts, Diaconis asks holders of red-suited cards to stand up. Two do. He then proceeds to tell all five punters exactly which card they hold. Cue a burst of awestruck applause.

How does he do it? Diaconis quips that "magicians aren't allowed to explain their secrets and mathematicians can't explain their secrets". But he tries. The root of card-recognition tricks lies in the De Bruijn Sequences, a branch of what's called "combinatorics" - a discipline with a long history that stretches from the counting patterns used in Indian classical music to the coded instructions for robots used today. The mathematicians grasp the theory easily enough, but the mind-boggling mental speed of the practice still confounds them, and me.

This is a taste ofthe first Mykonos conference on Mathematics and Narrative. Arranged by a group known as Thales and Friends, after the ancient Greek geometer and philosopher who reputedly measured the Pyramids, this unprecedented project to bring scientists and storytellers together was the brainchild of the polymath Apostolos Doxiadis. Worried that the maths he loves has drifted too far out of the cultural mainstream, Doxiadis has already done more than his share of bridge-building. His novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (Faber) helps to convey the life-enhancing, and life-consuming, attraction of pure mathematical research.

Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist who writes in her fiction about the "essentially tragic" lives of mathematicians, called her pet subjects "as bad as novelists in terms of ego". John Allen Paulos, who writes funny and instructive books, such as Innumeracy, about the misuse of statistics in the media, jokes: "How do you define an extravert mathematician? Someone who looks at your shoes when he's talking to you."

If you want evidence of the problem that confronts them, look no further than today's newspapers. Millions of people now enjoy Sudoku puzzles. Forget the pseudo-Japanese baloney: sudoku grids are a version of the Latin Square created by the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler in the late 18th century. Yet these legions of amateur problem-solvers tackle puzzles accompanied by the absurd assertion that "no maths is involved". In parts of popular culture, mathematics has become not so much the love that dare not speak its name as the love that doesn't even know its name.

So, as the sun blazed and the sea sparkled off stage, we heard stories about the extraordinary rhythms of breakthrough and breakdown that punctuate the history of modern maths, and stories about the thinking and imagining that mathematicians do on the cutting edge of creation. John Barrow, another Cambridge professor, related the story of how his play Infinities reached the stage. Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford mathematician and Channel 4 pundit, delivered his multimedia gig about the mysteries of prime numbers and the long quest to prove Riemann's Hypothesis. The show took in David Beckham's Real Madrid shirt (a prime 23), some raucous audience participation and Professor du Sautoy himself on a surprisingly sweet trumpet.

Less noisily, Tim Gowers ended his plea for concreteness and compression in mathematical explanations with some favourite passages from Alan Hollinghurst, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen - to highlight the skills that good novelists have and most mathematicians lack.

Of course, some writers and producers have turned to the lives and the works of mathematicians for inspiration. A gifted populariser such as Simon Singh can now sell in the hundreds of thousands - as he did with Fermat's Last Theorem. Sylvia Nasar's bestselling biography of the game-theory pioneer John Nash, and his decades-long mental illness, led to the big-screen adaptation of A Beautiful Mind. This familiar, Rain Man model of the pattern-seeking maths prodigy as a recluse, an idiot savant, or downright barking mad, recurs often - for instance, in fictionalised portraits (such as Enigma) of the computer prophet and Bletchley Park cryptographer Alan Turing. And it even underlies Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, with its Asperger-afflicted teenage narrator, always ready to reel off a series of prime numbers.

Not surprisingly, real mathematicians have mixed feelings about mass-market yarns that present their domain as the stamping-ground of eccentrics, or even lunatics. But, for the most part, they applaud the endeavour to dramatise the human struggle of mathematical reasoning. Only one (absent) literary figure really fell foul of the Mykonos mob: the American writer David Foster Wallace, who in Everything and More wrote not a novel but a purported history of the mathematics of infinity. The computer-science guru Martin Davis counted "86 really egregious errors" in Wallace's book. "Are we so hard up for approval from the humanities that we have to accept this?" he thundered.

And yet the history of modern maths features such a wealth of near-incredible narratives that certain kinds of faction or docu-drama will exert a huge appeal. After all, this is a field that, early in the last century, plunged into a "foundational crisis" that left its finest minds believing that they stood not on solid rock but on shifting sand. Out of that collective breakdown grew ideas about general computing machines that began as the purest theory but ended up as the intellectual inspiration of almost everything we now do with technology. If mathematics counts as the art of reality, then you might argue that its artistic crisis gave birth to the modern world.

This is the theme of the mathematical narrative that Doxiadis and some colleagues will tell next. Collaborating with the Berkeley-based computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou and the Athenian artists Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna, Doxiadis has been working on a ground-breaking graphic novel about the development of 20th-century maths and its makers, from Russell and Hilbert to Gödel and Turing.

Due in 2007, Logicomix will tell an epic human, and political, story. On the one hand, Papadatos, the project's chief graphic artist, depicts the social turmoil, global warfare and deadly ideologies of the last century. On the other, the core story of maths - as with every other brand of creativity - will often come down to the journey of a single mind alone with its dreams, and its demons. "Like a mathematician," Papadatos notes, "a cartoonist works with paper, pens - and a waste-paper basket."

www.thalesandfriends.org

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York