Not that Marcus du Sautoy – who, as well as being a professor of mathematics at Oxford university, has succeeded Richard Dawkins as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science – can adequately be summed up by the word “mathematician”. For a start there’s the hurricane force of his personality (journalists have a lot of fun talking about his bright clothes), and the range of his ambition (theatre is a passion, as is the desire to be a chef). We meet at his home in Stamford Hill in north London and, as he waves his arms around talking about everything from turn-of-the-century polymath Poincaré to palindromes, his enthusiasm for music makes him resemble a follically challenged Simon Rattle.
I talk to du Sautoy about the riots that greeted Schoenberg’s work. Why did atonal music disturb people so much? “I think musicians wanted to upset audiences,” he replies. “They were breaking the complacency of previous music – people were expecting to reach one destination through harmony or rhythm, and suddenly they were pulled away to somewhere completely different. What’s so exciting for me is how different that soundscape was – it was a time of complete change. In some ways one does have to go through the whole gamut of history to understand 20th-century music.”