Calling out Da Vinci


Mathematics teacher Dirk Huylebrouck is a man with a mission: He’s dedicated to sharing his love for numbers, equations and complex formulas with the general public in the most amusing – and sometimes embarrassing – manner possible.

Dirk Huylebrouck’s book insists that due respect be paid to Belgium’s major maths talent

Mathematics teacher Dirk Huylebrouck is a man with a mission: He’s dedicated to sharing his love for numbers, equations and complex formulas with the general public in the most amusing – and sometimes embarrassing – manner possible.

On 21 July (not coincidentally), a new book was published titled België + Wiskunde (Belgium + Maths). It’s written by Dirk Huylebrouck, a mathematics teacher in the architecture department at LUCA School of Arts in Brussels. In the book, Huylebrouck makes – in a rather frivolous and very readable style – a remarkable proposition: that Belgium and Flanders have played a significant role in modern mathematics.

Huylebrouck is not unknown to those who read the science section in Flemish newspapers or flip through the popular science magazine Eos. A couple of times a year, the author makes the press with his comments and findings on events in daily life that connect with mathematics.

For instance, three years ago on World Pi Day – you didn’t know there was one? It’s 14 March (written 3/14 in the US) – he convinced a branch of (Pi) zza Hut in Ghent to sell slices for €3.14. And often Huylebrouck’s interventions make a monkey of policymakers. A few years ago, he discovered that, due to restoration works, Brussels’ beloved Atomium had lost its mathematical perfection – one of the nine spheres came out slightly off course.

Last year, the teacher discovered a mistake in the Madrid I Codex of Leonardo da Vinci and Just a few months ago, he discovered embarrassing mistakes in the (modern) replica of a bridge invented by Da Vinci, which is currently on view at the Da Vinci: The Genius exhibition at the Beurs in Brussels.

Does it frustrate you that mathematicians have a rather dull, “nerdy” image?
Dirk Huylebrouck: No, not really. I guess everybody has to be a little nerdy to be successful in his field. The Borlées for instance, who do nothing but run the 400-metre, are perhaps even more “nerdy”. The public – rightly – admires the Borlées, but it doesn’t really appreciate the work of mathematicians. And yet, in contrast to many other nerdy activities, mathematics sometimes has a “collateral advantage”, as unexpected applications are always popping up.

Why do you find popularising math so important?
It’s an important social matter. Taxpayers need to understand why mathematicians are allowed to spend their time using their money to do math 24 hours a day. This does not mean all math should have useful practical applications – an often asked question – but the people also want to understand why fundamental research in math is necessary.

Politicians expect that scientific research, including maths, generates something that serves a practical purpose. Does that annoy you?
No, they are right. Politicians have to justify spending money on someone who is making weird scribbles all day. Though it’s frustrating indeed that people always ask what math is good for, while they never ask the same question to a painter, to a musician or … to a politician!”

Why is there no Nobel Prize for mathematics?
Don’t believe the popular myth that it’s because Alfred Nobel had an issue with a mathematician about some woman. The reality was that Nobel, who invented dynamite, wanted his prize to be awarded to research with practical applications.

You're often taking up the cause for the little-knowns in mathematics – those who don’t get the attention they deserve. Like Belgian mathematicians.
And the homosexual mathematicians, like Alan Turing! Yet I am not particularly interested in ‘underdogs’: As long as there is something remarkable to say, that works for me. As you said, mathematics has a dull image, and I want to contradict this, that’s all.

How do you think education and research in maths will evolve? Will the computer become the mathematician of the 21st century?
Mathematics has already undergone several transformations through time, so that would not be the first. The Greeks, for instance, did their math by drawings in the sand and did not even have a good numbering system. Computer software is of course a marvellous tool. There now is a completely new field of “experimental mathematics”. So yes: perhaps the computer will become a powerful mathematician in the 21st century, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Look at what happened for the chess game; since computers have become good chess players, there are more chess players than ever!

Who’s your personal math hero?
[British mathematical physicist] Roger Penrose, for several reasons. The main one is that he is a – still living! – mathematician who is active in many different fields. The discovery of quasi-crystals for instance, which allowed Dan Shechtman to get a Nobel Prize in 2011, used his Penrose tiles. Penrose also did research into the most pure forms of mathematics and physics, yet he does not object to popularising mathematics. I’ve never met him, which is a real pity.

Calling out Da Vinci

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