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Jun. 28, 2010

The Inspired “Story of Math”

by Karen A. Frenkel

The excellent four-hour BBC documentary The Story of Math introduces viewers to the great mathematicians and their contributions by traveling to the places they lived and that inspired them. Host and Oxford Professor Marcus du Sautoy is most engaging as he takes us with him across the globe in search of the roots of modern math.

The first episode, “The Language of the Universe,” explores the Babylonian system of quadratic equations. From a CGI air balloon, du Sautoy shows us how they must have used squaring to determine the area of farm fields. See the clip here where he explains how the Babylonians were “falling in love with mathematics”:

This sort of enthusiasm and context permeates this beautifully shot production, with its exotic locations, interviews with historians of math, and creative visualizations of abstract and difficult concepts. To save viewers from claustrophobia, du Sautoy has taken great care to shoot outdoors. And while a few mathematical explanations do go by too quickly, I happily rewound a few times, as my curiosity was so piqued.

Du Sautoy also travels to Greece, where he illustrates Pythagoras’ discovery of the harmonic series. As the story goes, the great Greek mathematician was strolling by a blacksmith’s and wondered why the notes sounded by the anvil striking heated metal were in perfect harmony. Experimenting with a string instrument, Pythagoras discovered that the intervals between harmonious notes were always represented as whole number ratios. Pythagoras was so excited by his discovery that he concluded the universe was built from numbers. Du Sautoy tells this tale with the help of shots of smelting iron and fire, and Greek musicians demonstrate the concept of dissonance while playing on a gorgeous island in the sunshine.

Later episodes discuss the Bernoulli dynasty, the famous rivalry between Newton and Leibniz, and Leonhard Euler, whom du Sautoy calls “the Mozart of Math.” I knew little about Swiss-born Euler, who moved in 1728 to St. Petersburg under the patronage of Peter the Great. His work involved topology, and his analysis spanned from prime numbers to optics to astronomy. He devised a system of notation, including Pi, weights and measures, and wrote a text on mechanics and a theory of music. The city of St. Petersburg, its waterways, Euler’s home, and The Russian Academy of Sciences serve as fabulous backdrops. The music of the day (Mozart, of course) moves it all along.

One distraction, for this American viewer, was du Sautoy’s use of the term “maths” – the British love their plurals. But no matter: BBC World News viewers voted the show “Best of the Year 2009: Documentary.” They seem to have had jolly good reason.

The DVD was released in the U.S. in March and is available for purchase here.

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About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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