## Interview: Paul Roberts talks to Prof Sam Cohen

Post-doc Mathematician Paul Roberts chats to Prof Sam Cohen, of the University of Oxford, about what it's like to be a Christian and a Mathematician.

Post-doc Mathematician Paul Roberts chats to Prof Sam Cohen, of the University of Oxford, about what it's like to be a Christian and a Mathematician.

Interviewee: Samuel Cohen - an associate professor in the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford and a member of St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford. |
Interviewer: Paul Roberts - a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Mathematics at the University of Birmingham and a member of City Church, Birmingham. |

God created the world, bringing order out of chaos, and we are following along behind him as we reflect, explain and seek to understand the order which we see.

It's a rather tedious story really - I went to university in Adelaide, Australia, where I studied Mathematics and Finance, majoring in statistics and pure mathematics, with an honours year in statistics. I then did my PhD in the same department, working on problems related to mathematical finance. After my PhD I moved to Oxford for a postdoc, then shifted into a permanent position a few years ago.

Thinking this way, there are clear links to statistics (how do we fit and assess models using data?), the other sciences (what is there to model?) and philosophy, in particular logic (what are the basic rules which models should follow?). It also helps us understand how mathematics fits with the real world - it's created in as much as we build models, but these models are almost always models

As to how Christian doctrines feed into this debate, the key thing is that we have a reason to believe that the world is ordered enough, and we are rational enough, that we can model it effectively. God created the world, bringing order out of chaos, and we are following along behind him as we reflect, explain and seek to understand the order which we see.

There is something inherently beautiful in patterns, in seeing how different parts of a system relate, in drawing surprising conclusions from an argument, and these are all part of what it means to find beauty and even joy in mathematics.

Mathematics is done with a pen in your hand and a look of obstinate perseverance on your face.

When it comes to relating faith and studies, I guess my main advice would be not to be too worried if it sometimes seems like there are few overt connections. Mathematics is not an area which often interacts directly with the points of the gospel which we think of as controversial, but it is an area where order, beauty, and reason abound.

Humility is often a challenge: Kolmogorov, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th Century, is attributed with saying, "Every mathematician believes that he is ahead of the others. The reason none state this belief in public is because they are intelligent people." I think there's a degree of truth in that, as it feels very clever when you understand something. It's hard not to let that go to your head.

As with all the virtues, the key way to achieve this is through love. By being willing to serve others, to love them when doing so won't reward you, you practically demonstrate that you are not the most important person there is. If you love those you teach, who read your work, who you explain ideas to, you will naturally want to be clear and honest as you do so. Of course, for a Christian, the source of this love is our reflecting of what God has done for us.

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