Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Music of the Primes

Yesterday I went to my first academic lecture at the University of Auckland. The speaker was Dr. Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician from Oxford who does a good deal of public outreach in the United Kingdom. He's in town as a visiting something-or-another, so he gave a talk on his most recent book titled The Music of the Primes.

(By the way, of all of Professor du Sautoy's achievements, the one I personally find most noteworthy is that he presented the 2006 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in London. I've always been quite jealous of the fact that the Brits do the Christmas Lectures, and wonder why we can't get our act together in the States to do something similar.)

Anyway, the first difference between lectures here and back at home is they are a really big deal, since having someone come half a world away to speak is no small matter! The lecture hall was standing room only and get this, the lecture was broadcast over the Internet to other crowded lecture halls in universities around the country. It was a rather remarkable effort, and revealed more about New Zealand culture than the Kiwis could possibly know.

The second and arguably more entertaining difference between lectures is this: you know how we all get really excited about the free beverages at colloquia? Well everyone gets excited here too but they don't give out just tea and coffee, and instead roll out the free wine and beer. Now I'm not actually implying anything here, but I'd like to mention that our physics colloquia would probably be a lot more entertaining if we were to take a page out of the Kiwi book. At the very least, we'd get a bigger turnout...

But anyway, lest this thread devolve into some state of innebriation, I will mention that Dr. du Sautoy did a great job introducing the mystery behind prime numbers to the point where he introduced Fourier series and the Riemann-Zeta function without anyone realizing this was something to be afraid of. For myself it helps that I've always had a fascination for prime numbers anyway: I don't know why but the idea of this random-but-not-random pattern in the fabric of numbers gets me very excited. I know without a doubt this is the problem I would be working on if I were a mathematician, which is why they are forever cropping up in my stories.

And as a final note, one other thing made me happy: the lecture started when lab wasn't quite done yet, so I found a nice group of physics kids to stage our jailbreak with. Some things never change.