# 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

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.