Just A Review: The Story of Maths – Episode One, The Language of the Universe

Posted on Tuesday 7 October 2008 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
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Last night BBC 4 broadcast the first episode of a new four part series entitled The Story of Maths. It’s presented by Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford professor and pop-sci mathematician extraordinaire, who takes a look at the history of maths and why it is so important. This initial outing focuses on the three ancient civilizations who were the founders of maths: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks.

The Egyptians were practical problem solvers, and their need for bureaucracy and land management lead to the development of a counting system. Common problems, such as how to split nine loaves of bread between 10 people, were worked out in detail, but the Egyptians never realised the power of a generalised proof, forcing them instead to work out the same problem multiple times, but with different numbers. As he walks around a modern Egyptian market, and marvels at the Pyramids, du Sautoy demonstrates some of their ancient methods. (For those still wondering, each person receives one half, one third, and one fifteenth of a loaf.)

The Babylonians used maths to solve every day problems as well, but they also taught more generalised solutions in schools. Most of the mathematical records we have from those times are actually preserved clay tablets that record the workings of school children. They knew about quadratic equations like x2 + 3x + 2 = 0, and du Sautoy blames the “recipes” used to solve such problems for poor maths teaching in modern classrooms.

Finally, we get to the Greeks, who in du Sautoy’s opinion are the true founders of maths – they were the inventors of proof, which opened up “a gulf between the other sciences” and are as true today as they were 2,000 years ago (a point he feels the need to make twice).

It’s a good primer to early maths, and I imagine it will be the most accessible programme of the series, since mathematics is a field that builds on its past and becomes increasingly complex. As one of the talking heads points out, Greek mathematics is still taught in schools today – because more modern concepts are completely inaccessible. Even at undergraduate level I spent most of my time learning about the 17th and 18th centuries; the 1970s were about the upper limit. This does make me wonder whether the series will remain engaging to the average viewer as it reaches more modern times.

I only have one criticism and it’s nothing to do with du Sautoy, who was excellent as always. It might be a small quibble, but the computer graphics used to illustrate his narrations were absolutely terrible. As du Sautoy was sent flying around on slices of Pyramid and hot air balloons, I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on what he was saying, as all I could think about was how cheap and cheesy looking the animations were. Seriously, they would not have looked out of place a decade ago. It seems silly to knock the programme for this reason, but production values are an important part of getting your message across, and doing it badly just doesn’t help.

Next week, du Sautoy heads east. I expect we will be hearing about Chinese and Arabic mathematicians, along with algorithms and the number zero. It should be interesting, and I do recommend you watch this first episode, despite the dodgy CGI.

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