Question: what’s a million times five? No, it’s not a trick. The answer is the amount of dollars you could win if you solved all five mathematical conundrums in The Num8er My5teries, a new book by the iconic popular mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. The book is based on a competition set up in 2000 by an American businessman called Landon Clay. Five puzzles, $1 million each.
It could be you.
Or at least that was true until last March, when the reclusive Russian maths genius Grigoriy Perelman solved one of the conundrums — known as the “Poincaré conjecture” — in resounding fashion. “Last week there was a glitzy award ceremony to present the first million dollars to Perelman,” du Sautoy tells me, his voice brimming with customary enthusiasm. “But he didn’t turn up.”
Didn’t turn up? “Mathematicians are rather quirky. We don’t tend to be interested in money,” du Sautoy says. “It’s the glory of eternity that motivates us.” In the eyes of du Sautoy and his colleagues, the Russian has achieved something that has no earthly price. “Personally,” he says candidly, “I’d pay a million dollars to solve one of these problems. It’s a small price to pay to become immortal.”
In The Num8er My5teries, these problems are presented with the flair and vim that has made du Sautoy into something of a national treasure. “I build up to each conundrum with some unexpected questions,” he tells me. “Why did Beckham choose the 23 shirt? Why do cicadas love the number 17? And how can you win the lottery?” (This final question, I suspect, may appeal to gold diggers who see the book as an investment.) “What’s more,” the mathematician continues, “I’ve made the problems into games like Minesweeper and Su Doku. It’s wide open for everyone.”
I am almost inclined to have a crack myself. But then I recall that my last experience with mathematics was at GCSE, 16 years ago (I got a C). If so many extraordinary mathematical brains have tried and failed, what chance could I possibly have?
“Every chance,” du Sautoy says. And I think he means it. “Non-mathematicians sometimes approach things from a whole new angle. The next winner might well be a reader of my book, who became inspired while sitting on the loo.” He notices my sudden amplification of interest. “Though of course,” he reminds me, “if you’re doing it for the money, you’ll never be a real mathematician.”