When I was 12 years old, my mathematics teacher, Mr Bailson, pointed at me during a class and said: ‘du Sautoy, see me at the end of the lesson’. I thought I must be in trouble. When he took me round the back of the maths block, I knew I was really in trouble. But then he took out a cigar from his pocket. He lit it slowly, turned to me, and said: ‘I think you should find out what mathematics is really about.’
He recommended reading Martin Gardener’s ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American. He gave me the name of a couple of books which he thought I might enjoy. Just the effect of a teacher taking a personal interest in me was enough to spur me on to find out what he was talking about.
The world he revealed to me was extraordinary. It was as if I had been a musician learning my arithmetic scales and my arpeggios in the classroom, and then suddenly this teacher played me a piece of real mathematical music. I didn’t understand how it had been composed, nor how to play it. But I knew that one day, I wanted to create mathematics as beautiful as the things my teacher revealed to me behind the back of the maths block that morning.
Marcus du Sautoy is author of The Music of the Primes: Why an Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.