Bending maths to decode David Beckham’s No. 23 shirt | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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Bending maths to decode David Beckham’s No. 23 shirt

On Wednesday evening, the audience at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Colaba, sat pondering over an unusual question: Why did footballer David Beckham choose to wear the number 23 on his shirt while playing for the Real Madrid team?

mumbai Updated: May 13, 2010 02:30 IST
Vignesh Sridharan

On Wednesday evening, the audience at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Colaba, sat pondering over an unusual question: Why did footballer David Beckham choose to wear the number 23 on his shirt while playing for the Real Madrid team?

Oxford Professor Marcus du Sautoy, who posed the question, guessed that the team had a fascination with prime numbers, pointing out that they also used numbers such as 7, 11 and 13. The question was the starting point of a lecture, The Music of the Primes, in which the professor shared his enthusiasm for prime numbers and football.

“I always dread having to tell people I’m a mathematician, because you can see that look of horror on their faces,” said du Sautoy. “Most people think that mathematics is just about long division. What I do is more exciting than that.”

Showing the audience a clip from the film Pi, whose mathematician protagonist loses his sanity in the quest for elusive mathematical patterns, he said, “That’s what mathematicians are — people who look for patterns. Of course in the movies, the mathematician always goes insane.” Prime numbers, he explained, both frustrate and intrigue because they appear randomly, and without a pattern.

He then put up number sequences on the screen and had the audience guess the next number in each sequence. They worked out the first two using simple logic. The third, a sequence of prime numbers, had no discernible pattern. The fourth baffled everyone. “If you could guess the next number in this sequence, you could be very rich,” said du Sautoy. “Those are the September 28 National Lottery numbers.”

He decoded theories of mathematicians as diverse as Euclid and Gauss. To explain how Riemann built on Gauss’s theories, for instance, he used a musical analogy. But after he spoke about wave frequencies and sound production in various musical instruments, he unexpectedly picked up a trumpet and played a few bars.

After hearing du Sautoy explain why some insects always wait for a prime number of years before swarming, or describe his attempts to make sure his new phone number was a prime, no one will think maths is “just about long division” again.