This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at PurpleBeach.com
Maths is a ‘Marmite’ subject, you either love it or hate it, says Marcus du Sautoy who is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, as well as being a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and an author.
Marcus began with some questions to the audience: What is Maths? Is it a language? An art form? A secret code? And what does a mathematician do, other than (as many people think) long division sums to lots of decimal places? According to Marcus, mathematicians search for patterns to help predict the future. For example, can you predict the next number in this sequence: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55…. This is the famous Fibonacci sequence, and did you know that the number of petals on a flower Is always a number on this sequence?
Marcus also introduced us to the mysteries of triangular numbers, circle division numbers, even lottery numbers. But his favourite of all are prime numbers, because they are the atoms of arithmetic, used to build all other numbers.
Prime numbers appear in nature, for example the life cycle of the Magicicada septendecin, a very noisy North American insect that hides underground for 17 years, emerges for a six week party, lays its eggs then goes quiet again for another 17 years. Why does it do that? Did prime numbers help these cicadas outfox a predator?
Marcus ended by talking about chaos theory and how in some systems there are thresholds where patterns go from predictable to chaotic. Weather forecasting is a good example of this. With their incredibly complex mathematical models, meteorologists can’t reliably predict more than 5 days in advance. Yet there is no doubt that simply knowing whether you are in a predictable or unpredictable region of your business is very powerful to help you understand the future.
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