“Narrative & Proof”: A Mathematician’s Perspective


Recently, I stumbled upon a Guardian article by mathematician and BBC presenter Marcus du Sautoy. I’d missed it when it was originally published in January as I was travelling then. If you are not familiar with Marcus’ work you can access his podcast “A Brief History of Mathematics” (10 episodes) and watch clips of his BBC Four programme “The Story of Maths” (currently not available on iplayer).

Sautoy’s  works remind me of another mathematician Ian Stewart of the ilk who write for the general audience. Stewart’s book entitled “Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry” is a real delight to read. I also realised how little I originally understood mathematics when I first read Stewart’s “The Problems of Mathematics”.

Returning to the Guardian article, Sautoy tells us why he thinks mathematicians are really storytellers. In Sautoy’s words: “Our characters are numbers and geometries. Our narratives are the proofs we create about these characters.” This is no departure of the storytelling Sautoy engages with routinely. There is an excellent lecture on the telegraph website of him discussing “Music and Symmetry”.

There were two specific things from the article that I wished to share here. One a quote and the other a lecture.

I thought the quote was quite reasonably a sound piece of writing advice. Sautoy says in the article,

“A successful proof is like a set of signposts that allow all subsequent mathematicians to make the same journey. Readers of the proof will experience the same exciting realisation as its author that this path allows them to reach the distant peak. Very often a proof will not seek to dot every i and cross every t, just as a story does not present every detail of a character’s life. It is a description of the journey and not necessarily the re-enactment of every step. The arguments that mathematicians provide as proofs are designed to create a rush in the mind of the reader. The mathematician GH Hardy described the arguments we give as “gas, rhetorical flourishes designed to affect the psychology, pictures on the board in the lecture, devices to stimulate the imagination of pupils”.”

The other thing I thought to share was the event that inspired the Guardian article. It ran in January, but it was recorded. Link to the video podcast of the lecture here. The event was entitled Narrative & Proof: Two Sides of the Same Equation”. The podcast page described the event as follows,

One of the UK’s leading scientists, Marcus du Sautoy, argues that mathematical proofs are not just number-based, but also a form of narrative.

In an unusually multidisciplinary panel, du Sautoy is joined by author Ben Okri, mathematician Roger Penrose, and literary scholar Laura Marcus, to consider how narrative underpins and nurtures the respective disciplines.

The discussion is introduced by the Head of the Humanities Division, Professor Shearer West and chaired by the Professor of World Literature in English, Elleke Boehmer.

Trust me to find things that are a bit more abstract than international legal thought!