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

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil