Marcus du Sautoy

There is something rather extraordinary about travelling from the ivory towers of Oxford across the world to the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan, between two cultures that seem so different and yet to be able to share our stories. The connection I found with the range of different authors and audience members who attended the sixth Mountain Echoes Festival in Thimphu is testament to the universal power that storytelling has to bind people from around the world. But perhaps the mathematical stories I brought to Bhutan have a universality about them that allowed me to connect with the Bhutanese audience in a rather unexpected way. Mathematics can often alienate people rather than bring them together. But  it is the universal nature of the subject of symmetry that I talked about at the Mountain Echoes festival which meant that my stories resonated for many different people: from the Buddhist mandalas to the arabic tiles of the Alhambra, from the symmetry of Bach’s music to the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, symmetry has been central to many cultures.

For me, visiting Bhutan was a life changing experience. I came back infected by the ideas that are central to the culture of Bhutan. I realised that it is ideas and stories and shared experiences that are the important things to cherish, not the accumulation of things that weigh us down in a our journey through life. My trip to Bhutan marked an important numerical landmark in my life. I turned 50 while at the festival. To celebrate this important moment, my wife Shani arranged for us to climb to the top of a mountain and to sit with 8 nuns in the nunnery at the top while they sang the prayer to longevity for me for an hour. It was an extraordinary meditate experience, rather like listening to a Steve Reich concert as the nuns went in and out of phase singing the prayers they knew so well. When the prayers were finished, we all ate cake. Attending the Mountain Echoes festival was truly the best birthday present ever.

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