Marcus du Sautoy: Decipher Intelligence & Creativity

What is creativity? Can we be more creative? Is there any formula to make us more creative? We talk a lot about technology but we need to learn more about ourselves.



Marcus du Sautoy is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the Oxford University, a chair he holds jointly at the Department of Continuing Education and the Mathematical Institute. He is also a Professor of Mathematics and a Fellow of New College. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016. In 2001 he won the prestigious Berwick Prize of the London Mathematical Society awarded every two years to reward the best mathematical research made by a mathematician under 40. In 2004 Esquire Magazine chose him as one of the 100 most influential people under 40 in Britain and in 2008 he was included in the prestigious directory Who’s Who. In 2009 he was awarded the Royal Society’s Faraday Prize, the UK’s premier award for excellence in communicating science. He received an OBE for services to science in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List. He also received the Joint Policy for Mathematics Board Communications Award for 2010 and the London Mathematical Society Zeeman Medal for 2014 for promotion of mathematics to the public.

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For those who are not familiar with you, please let us know more about who you are. Why did you decide to pursue your career as an academician?


I have always been excited by the idea that I might be able to uncover some eternal truth about the universe. Mathematics is the language of the universe so for me this was the subject that I was drawn to. I love the idea that once I’ve proved a new mathematical theorem that it is there forever. My greatest discovery has been a new symmetrical object that lives in high dimensional space. How amazing to know that I am the first ever to play with this new object.


What does motivate you to research, learn, and explore “knowledge” and share it with others?

There are two parts of being a scientist for me: discovery and communication. I love the moment of discovery, of feeling like you are shining a light on a new bit of knowledge about the universe. But the next stage is sharing that discovery with others. A new discovery only starts to breath and come alive when you can bring it to life in the minds of others. For me that desire to communicate goes beyond just my scientific colleagues. I want the whole world to know about it.


When you face some difficulty in your work, what is your approach to overcome it?

My trick when I am stuck is to stop thinking about the problem. Letting your subconscious roam over the problem is very important. I go running. I play music. I sleep. And then suddenly my subconscious discovers something and I experience that flash of insight that many people talk about. One important thing to note: it is important that things are difficult. It makes the breakthrough when it comes that much more rewarding. There is no point doing easy things.

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What is the biggest challenge you have when you transmit your knowledge to others? For example, sometimes your knowledge is not always easy to verbalize to explain to others.


Mathematics is a language. If you don’t speak that language then it can be tough to translate. It is like the challenge of translating a culturally specific idea from Japanese to English when there is no equivalent in English. Sometimes the mathematics leads you down weird and wonderful tunnels that only make sense by following the algebra. Quantum physics is a perfect example. To a lay audience, the physics seems very counter intuitive. But written in mathematical language and everything makes perfect sense.


What would be key success factors in learning? Is studying (memorizing a lot for exams) truly an ideal approach for us to learn something?   

I have a terrible memory. That is partly why I was drawn to mathematics. Provided you understand the ideas it is possible to reconstruct formulas from scratch. Understanding the fundamental principles for me is key to the best learning. The other important thing is not to be afraid of making mistakes. This new age of AI is based on the idea that code improves every time it makes a mistake. This is the principle of machine learning. The ability to update the code based on getting things wrong.


What is “understanding” do you think? For example, sometime understanding happens beyond knowledge/logic. 


I think there are three stages to understanding. First: The moment when you suddenly get it. That exciting moment of personal revelation. Then second: the moment when you try to explain it to someone else standing in the room next to you. At this point you can use your body to try to communicate the idea as much as language. My hands whiz about like a Rome traffic cop. You can use your embodiment to try to share the understanding. The toughest moment is the third stage: you have to commit your understanding to the page and it must communicate its story to the reader without your help. This is the moment when you must use language alone to crystalise the idea. Often this moment can require the creation of new language to truly capture the breakthrough. It is the toughest stage.

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If a person loses 99% of the natural part due to some accident or disease and need to replace it with an artificial brain (in the future), is this person still considered human?

Philosophy 101! I have been fascinated in what it is about the brain that gives us our consciousness and the challenge of whether you could create a physical system that might have its own sense of self. I have been very impressed by Guilio Tononi’s work on integrated information theory or IIT which posits that it is the nature of the network not the physical thing itself which is the key to consciousness. So I do believe that we could create consciousness artificially one day.


If a person wants to be able to think creative or innovative, what would be the first step?


In the Creativity Code I talk about three different sorts of creativity. The first: exploratory creativity. This is about pushing the current rules of the game to the extreme. Here is your first step. Understand the rules and try to push them further. The second: combinational creativity. This is about combining creative in one field to a completely unrelated area. This is an important second step to innovation. Learn from other disciplines from your own. And third: transformational creativity. This is the most exciting when something appears from no where. This is about breaking the rules. So be prepared to think outside the box and to take risks by jumping into the unknown.


If you can make a call to 20-year-old Marcus du Sautoy, what kind of advice would you give him?


Don’t worry…they are going to invent this thing called spell-checker.


What would be one thing that you would like to achieve in your life?


A proof of the Riemann Hypothesis.