The Music of the Primes: [Marcus du Sautoy]

Music of the Primes

MATHS. A topic the mere mention of which brings on a stress headache in many.

I, too, had some feelings about maths before I started ‘Music of the Primes’. Let me tell you about those feelings through connected anecdotes.

A close friend of mine was recently part of a business meeting in which she was the only lady present. When a colleague told a story about his daughter struggling slightly in maths, and how he was planning to help her, my friend’s boss loudly told him that there was no point as girls are no good at maths.

This is obviously enraging.

I struggled with maths too, as I hinted at the top of this post. But the kicker is that I was never bad at it (nor, I should add, did my gender have anything whatsoever to do with it). I was filtered into the top maths class at school along with some seriously bright girls. The pace was extraordinarily fast, and I was out of my depth. I managed to grasp all the necessary concepts and I still achieved an A in the end, but for two years I was trapped in a vicious circle of playing catch-up – leaving myself with ever-shakier foundations upon which to build the next layer of knowledge. I felt stupid next to my classmates and had rock-bottom confidence as a result. (I did ask to be moved down a set but was told not to be “silly”). My mathematically brilliant best friend was my lifeline throughout, and we can now look back and laugh at the way she would, without fail, receive a call from me the night before every test, in floods of tears and hyperventilating.

This educational kerfuffle obviously engendered in me an aversion to maths.

Third and final anecdote. A few weeks ago, my flatmates and I all got really drunk and ended up sleeping in each others’ rooms. It was great fun. I ended up in the room of my flatmate Adam, who is a fire engineer (yeah, it’s awesome). It goes without saying that I had a nosy through his books, and I caught a glimpse of ‘Music of the Primes’ but reflexively skipped on to the next thing. Maths – that’s not for me. But then I had this weird flash of anger with myself. Why should I discount a book about maths? Am I too stupid to understand a pop science book for God’s sake? Of course not! I picked it up, stormed out of the room and set to. Granted, it wasn’t the best choice of hangover reading material, but I was drowning out my headache with determination and empowerment.

And here we are. It took me quite a while considering that I normally tear through books like The Flash in a library, but I finished ‘Music of the Primes’ and I really, genuinely enjoyed it. My instinct is to have a moan about how the author seemed a bit obsessed with providing a mini ‘This Is Your Life’ for every mathematical figure who has ever so much as thought about a prime number. But I can’t really complain, because this was actually a really nice method of turning the study of prime numbers over the years into a narrative, making the whole thing accessible and familiar. And yes, the maths itself was rather dumbed-down, and more difficult concepts were kept bundled up inside the cotton wool of metaphor. If this makes it too basic a book for you, then pat yourself on the back and go pick up something more challenging. But I’ve retained a surprisingly large amount of information, and I genuinely feel a desire to go away and keep reading about primes.

I know that I’m far from alone in the trepidatious feelings I have about maths, in fact I’m well aware that lots and lots of you will have had a much worse time of it than I did at school. I’m not throwing myself a pity party, honestly. The point of this post was to remind you all that books exist as tools to empower you in myriad different ways. There will be books pitched at a level you can understand and appreciate. And once you find something which gives you that bit of knowledge and confidence, you can build from there.


Artwork Credit: Via Crucis VIII by Xylor Jane, a Canadian artist whose pieces are guided by the structure of numerical sequences – primes in particular.


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