For many people, Marcus du Sautoy might just be the most recognisable face in modern mathematics (although Carol Vorderman fans may disagree with this assertion!). He writes regularly for several national UK newspapers, is a frequent guest on the BBC and is about to release his fifth book. He has also taken mathematics to some more unconventional places, including the Glastonbury festival, the Royal Opera house and the Barbican. His academic work focuses on number theory and group theory, something that he says appeals to him due to its inherent structure, and because once you have the right idea “it kind of runs itself”. This love for big ideas and the story of mathematical discovery will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen him enthusiastically explain one of his favourite subjects, Euclid’s proof that there are infinitely many primes, on radio, television or in print.
However, despite his broad research background and his familiarity with, dare we say it, intimidating-sounding concepts such as ‘zeta functions of infinite-dimensional Lie algebras’, du Sautoy assures us that he is not the sort of person who “gets things really quickly”. This, he says, has helped him become effective at communicating mathematics—you must “get in the head of your audience” and understand why they aren’t comfortable with a concept, or “find the thing that they get, which you can use” to take them on the same journey that you have been through on your own road to understanding. In short, it is empathy.