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A travel guide to symmetry | A singular mathematician on tour in Europe

By Anna Behrend

Bright green, shocking pink or loud checks – you can’t easily miss Marcus du Sautoy. Nothing much else about him fits the image of a professor of mathematics either. When he talks about maths he doesn’t quote formulae but, with a cheeky grin, tells amusing anecdotes. What he does have in common with other mathematicians is his passion for his subject – particularly symmetry.

Born in the UK, Marcus du Sautoy’s research focuses on the symmetry of mathematical objects, which can have many thousands of dimensions. But even in his everyday life, or indeed on holiday, the search for symmetry is omnipresent. And what he has discovered so far, he has put together in his book Finding Moonshine

In many ways the book is a travel guide: on the one side, the reader is a time-traveller, journeying through the history of mathematics.  Marcus du Sautoy talks about the ancient Greeks searching for the basic building blocks of symmetry and about modern mathematicians whose research is so specialised that only a handful of people can understand it. Along the way, he continually gives the reader a sense of the beauty of complex mathematical structures and the obsession of mathematicians. On the other, du Sautoy describes his journeys in Europe. Together with his family he investigates places where artists and architects have been inspired by symmetry.

To find out more about the various stages of Marcus du Sautoy’s journeys simply follow the national flags on the right and click on the corresponding symmetry location.

Video by Anna Behrend (14.3 MB, 4:49 mins)

Mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy explains what fascinates him about symmetry and what his favourite number has to do with insects.

This piece was produced in the course of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2008.

La Géode

Paris, France

This sphere is made up of 6,443 triangles.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Carved stone balls

Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland

Symmetry inspired artists right back in the Stone Age: around 2500 B.C. carvers toyed with the symmetrical properties of stone balls.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early Stone Age dice

British Museum, London, United Kingdom

The symmetry of these tetrahedral dice determines the probability with which a certain number occurs.

© (Sautoy)

Irish tomb paintings

Newgrange Mound, County Meath, Ireland

Even Stone Age man had a weakness for symmetry.

© (Sautoy)


Alhambra, Granada, Spain

This Moorish fortress is also known as the Palace of Symmetry. Here, you really can find all 17 two-dimensional symmetries in the artistic ornamentation.


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