Marcus du Sautoy: ‘The life of primes: the biography of a mathematical idea’

OCLW is generally engaged in conversations on literature, history, and art, but for the second Weinrebe lecture the centre welcomed a voice ‘from the other side of the divide’. Marcus du Sautoy’s lecture on the life of prime numbers opened up an entirely different way of thinking about biography. Delivered in a manner that was as enlightening as it was entertaining, du Sautoy breathed life into mathematics in a way that surely left many in his audience wanting to learn more.

Challenging the traditional understanding of mathematics as an impersonal science, du Sautoy explained that his relationship to numbers was, in fact, a personal affair. Consequently, when he decided to write a book about prime numbers, du Sautoy chose to include the men behind the numbers, showing how theories and equations are linked to the people who created them and to the period in history in which these individuals lived. Biography was the means through which du Sautoy brought life into the narrative, re-inserting mathematics into history.

Du Sautoy wanted to tell his audience about the important characters in his life: prime numbers. These form the ‘atoms of his subject’ in his book The Music of the Primes: Why an Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which travels through many generations, primes have a very long life and have thus interacted with many different lives in different epochs. The people connected to these numbers are as important as the numbers themselves. Du Sautoy told us a story that stretched back from the Ancient Greeks to the present day, of men across the ages trying to understand primes. Each grappled with them in different angles, adding new ways of seeing to a process that still absorbs many today.

This delightfully illustrative lecture gave details of many biographical experiences that informed the history of primes. These included the productive intellectual relationship between G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 17th century monk Marin Mersenne who believed he had found the formula to solve the problem of primes, Carl Friedrich Gauss who, in the 19th century, tried to the find overarching patterns to calculate primes, and Bernhard Riemann who transformed prime theory by developing the musical zeta function. The story changed again in the 20th century, when Hugh Montgomery and Freeman Dyson used ideas from quantum physics as models to study primes, starting yet another journey for the life of primes. It is a life that remains very important today, since prime numbers are integral to our contemporary existence, forming the foundations of our banking and internet security. Primes are the keys which protect our electronic secrets.

Du Sautoy concluded by reminding us that math is much more of a creative subject than most people realise, a point his lecture beautifully illustrated. With his vivid examples – like the curious prime-centred life-cycle of the North American cicada that happens to hide underground for 17 years – and his engaging narrative, du Sautoy made the biography of primes come alive for a palpably engaged audience at OCLW.


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