Beautiful Equations

“There is no black and white, only many shades of grey.” These were the words of Dr Kevin Fong who was speaking about medical certainties – or rather uncertainties – at a recent Guardian Members event called “Beautiful Equations”. I received an email advertising the event which said: “We bring together some of the greatest thinkers in the UK for a unique event as part of our Brainwaves project. Mathematician and author Professor Marcus du Sautoy, physicist and oceanographer Helen Czerski, biologist and filmmaker Gillian Burke and Dr Kevin Fong, medical doctor and expert in extreme environments, give a series of inspiring talks, ranging from prime numbers to human exploration. Their talks will be brought to life through specially commissioned illustrations live projected around them as they speak.”

Now I’m not a mathematician, and in fact was terrible at Maths at school, and suffer a bit from number blindness, but I have heard Marcus du Sautoy speak a couple of times before and he is absolutely fascinating, even if I don’t understand everything says, so I was intrigued enough to buy a ticket. I was slightly worried that it would be way above my head, and all about mathematical equations, yet in fact, Marcus du Sautoy was the only mathematician and he didn’t mention any equations! If I had to come up with a word to encompass the subject matter of these four fascinating and diverse talks, I would say they all spoke of “exploration” – whether that was exploration of the natural world, prime numbers,  space, oceans (and in particular the bubbles that are just below the surface of the ocean, Antarctica, or exploration of the human body.

All four speakers were extremely articulate and spoke seemingly without notes and without the stumbles and the ums and errs that I tend to suffer from when I have to speak in public. And as they spoke, behind them on a giant screen, specially commissioned animations played out to illustrate their talks. I thought that this would be off-putting at first, and worried that I would become so consumed in watching the cartoons behind the speakers that I would not concentrate on what they were saying, but in fact the illustrations were very well done and enhanced what they were saying. I guess many of us respond better to visual rather than auditory stimuli, which certainly seemed to be true in this case.

After each talk the speaker sat down for a Q&A session with the Guardian’s science writer, followed by questions from the audience. The evening was at BAFTA on Piccadilly, which was not a building I had been in before, so that was another draw. Altogether it was an interesting and thought-provoking evening – I will certainly keep an eye out for other events in the Brainwaves series.

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