Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He is the author of six books, including most recently The Creativity Code (Fourth Estate, 2019). He has presented numerous radio and TV series including The Story of Maths, a four-part landmark TV series for the BBC. He works extensively with a range of arts organisations bringing science alive for the public – from The Royal Opera House to Glastonbury Festival. His play I is a Strange Loop (with him also featuring as an actor) was part of the Barbican’s Life Rewired season. He received an OBE for services to science in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016.
What kind of devices do you use, and how do you use them?
A MacBook Pro and an iPhone 10.
I think most people’s impression is that a computer must be an essential tool in doing mathematics. But when I am in mathematician mode then everything is still done analogue rather than digital. I have an obsession with creating my mathematics on yellow legal note pads. It is a very non-linear process so I need the freedom that the page allows to scribble equations in many directions. My devices are used during this process to provide the music that I find essential as a partner in creating mathematics but also as a portal to the mathematics I’ll want to consult in journals. In the past I would have to go to the library and order up a physical book. Now the facility to access ideas so quickly, even before they are formally published, has greatly improved my efficiency. I will sometimes use my laptop to do experiments on the mathematics I’m exploring but ultimately it is the device inside my head that will be the one that has the “aha” moment. When I am in author mode then my laptop is definitely my canvas of choice. Spellcheck has spared my blushes on numerous occasions. I use my smart phone as a digital notepad where I can collect interesting insights that will feed into my writing.
Effectiveness requires focus. How vulnerable are you to the distraction industry?
I often compare being a mathematician to the practice of a Buddhist monk. You have to be able to achieve extraordinary levels of concentration, to be able to leave the distractions of the physical world behind, in order to enter this strange abstract world of the mind. Doing mathematics is like entering a deep meditative state. It requires huge amount of discipline and practice. I think this is why you find that those that are high on the aspergic spectrum often make good mathematicians. That ability to ignore everything else around you and to just focus on the problem you are working on is a valuable superpower. That said I am just as vulnerable to the distraction industry as everyone else. Email is the worst. I have to quit my email when I’m working to avoid the attractive ping of an incoming email. But sometimes distraction can be an important part of the creative process. I am extremely messy. If I’m looking for a book or paper to reference I often enjoy being distracted by the discovery of some random article I’ll discover on my search. When I tidy my office my creativity always goes down. Online distraction can work the same way. The art is not getting lost down some rabbit-hole.
Prominent figures in Silicon Valley are known to strongly limit their children’s contact with tech. Madonna has recently said that she believes she made a mistake in giving her older children phones when they were 13.
The differences between people who grew up before smartphones and those who didn’t?
The growth in artificial intelligence driven by machine learning is transforming the technology we are using. The overriding narrative that we are being fed is pretty dystopic. But it doesn’t have to be like that. The key to a positive future with technology is knowledge. It is important to understand how we are being pushed around by the algorithms that guide us through modern life. That understanding then gives us the power to be able to avoid being manipulated and use it to our advantage. Programme or be programmed. In my new book The Creativity Code I’ve been exploring the power of code to be creative. Too often this story is billed as a competition. Will a composer or a writer or an artist be put out of a job by a creative computer? But the stories I encountered reveal how code can help to push our own human creativity. Too often we get stuck in ways of doing things. We behave like machines. Good code can help to kick us out of mechanistic ways of thinking, to reveal new possibilities. This is not about competition with code, but about collaboration.