Science: The strange world of the man without a computer

INCREASINGLY SOPHISTICATED apparatus and ever-more powerful computers are finding their way into virtually every branch of science. But in one field of research the only essential equipment is a pen, some scraps of paper and a comfy chair.

Mathematics underpins virtually every other branch of the pure and applied sciences. However, in its most theoretical form, maths is entirely separate from other disciplines as its exists only within the mind.

Indeed, Dr Marcus du Sautoy, a Royal Society research fellow in mathematics at the University of Cambridge says he rarely uses a computer - except as a word processor to write up his findings. He is used to dealing with non-mathematicians' bafflement over how he spends his time - how can someone produce useful work simply by sitting and thinking?

"Yes, most people seem to think that mathematical research is long division to a lot of decimal places. That's because of the maths they remember from school," he says. "At that stage you are just learning the basic techniques, the language and grammar of mathematics. There are similarities with music; first you have to learn the scales and time signatures but at least with music you do have an idea what it will eventually sound like. You don't really learn to `hear' a piece of mathematics until you get to university level."

Du Sautoy's own area is symmetry, an enduring obsession of mathematicians because the harmonious patterns they describe on the page keep cropping up in the real world - for example, the most efficient way of stacking oranges in a greengrocer's box forms a regular hexagonal shape.

There is also the hope that his formulae will help explain other mathematical phenomena such as prime numbers. "The thrill of maths is in spotting and finding patterns which exist in two different areas. It's like wandering around a darkened building and using a mathematical torch to try to find the passageway connecting two different rooms."

Prime numbers fascinate Du Sautoy and his colleagues because they are the fundamental particles of their world - the atoms of the mathematician's Periodic Table. The search continues for ever higher prime numbers and to explain why they occur so randomly. To explain their distribution would answer one of the great mysteries of maths, the Riemann hypothesis.

A trick using prime numbers was invented by the great French mathematician Pierre de Fermat more than 250 years ago. This now forms the basis of the encryption system used to prevent eavesdropping on electronic communications. This prevents, for example, somebody intercepting an e-mail giving a person's credit card numbers. Indeed, the security of the whole financial system is dependent on relatively simple codes using prime numbers relayed between the sender and authorised receiver of the message (or rather their computers). The actual prime numbers used are only known by the authorised receiver; in fact, the sender cannot even decode his own message once it has been encrypted.

Such unexpected applications of mathematical knowledge are not uncommon. "We do what we are doing because of the pleasure we get from understanding the mathematical world. Mostly the problems we set out to solve do not relate to the real world but you never know when they will - sometimes you do get these bizarre pay-offs."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger & Arrears Supervisor

    £22000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are an experienced super...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Web Designer

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

    Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss