Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Story of Maths

BBC4 showed the first episode of "The Story of Maths" last night, presented by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. This is a co-production with the Open University.

The PR for this series is full of engaging stuff about making maths accessible, and giving a sense of mathematicians as real people (see here for example).

Adrian, Clare and myself sat, watched it and cringed. What would you say? Palin (Michael, not Sarah) meets Maths? Top Gear meets Maths without the jokes?

Adrian commented that the travel budget was too large, as Prof. du Sautoy decampled from the Egyptian pyramids to board yet another jet to Greece to "find out how the Greeks did it". I suspect using the the Internet, or a large whiteboard, would have proved more insightful. Still, in best Michael Palin style we saw lots of ancient ruins, modern markets and merchandise, while Marcus talked about ancient arithmetic and calculation without really conveying any of the ideas.

I particularly liked his extended discussion of the Babylonian base-60 number system while the screen showed endless minutes of someone shoving a pointed stick into a clay tablet. Wonderful!

For example, we were given a visual 'proof' of Pythagoras' theorem which went by too fast to understand if you didn't already know it. We heard a discussion of the irrationality of the number √2, which omitted an explanation as to why √2 is irrational (we saw a proof being written down but it was not explained). Plato was cited as showing that there are only five regular convex 3D polyhedra, but the reason why was never explained.

So who is this programme aimed at? If at the "ordinary guy" who never figured out equations at school, then throwing in references to calculus are not going to work. If it's people who have aptitude and/or background in maths, then you can risk a little more and, --- er, do some maths?

My only hope is that, like "Atom", it may get better.