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on 19 July 2017
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on 26 September 2014
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VINE VOICEon 25 July 2013
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
...it was her mode to be mean rather than a median.

And with a joke like that I'm surprised you're still reading this review. But it illustrates part of the problem with a product about maths. Like Marmite, no other subject is likely to divide people based on whether they were good at it at school and so love it or whether they were bad at it and thus hate it.

So you have to question whom this product is aimed at. If you are in the "love maths" camp then you may be interested in purchasing this product but the writers were clearly aiming at a wider audience and so you may be frustrated by its lack of depth. On the other hand if you are in the "hate maths" camp then you're unlikely to spend your money to learn about something you dislike. But it's nice to know they were thinking of you when writing the script...

So what's on this 2½ hour 2 CD set? Well it's not so much a brief history of mathematics as snippets on some of the people who shaped mathematics. So it covers:

Leibniz & Newton - calculus which is used in rocket science
Euler - solving the bridges of Koenigsberg problem and its use in the internet
Fourier - sound waves and their use in CD recording (with guest appearance from Brian Eno)
Galois - symmetry and it's use in identifying the 12 subatomic particles
Gauss - and the Gaussian distribution and a politically correct statement :(
Riemann - describing 4D shapes (and a tenuous link to its use by Einstein with time as the 4th dim)
Cantor - looking at infinity
Poincare - chaos theory and its use in weather prediction
GH Hardy - and his interest in prime numbers and how they are now used for internet encryption
"Nicolas Bourbaki" - algebraic geometry and it's use in Nav Sats.

Since I fall in the "good at maths" camp I learnt about some figures and areas I'd not studied but the hints about where the mathematics is used frustratingly brief. But then had they gone into more detail would I have understood it from an audio description...

So in summary - a high quality BBC production for Radio 4 which just isn't going to satisfy any one camp...kind of like a la carte food - tasty but not really filling.
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VINE VOICEon 8 August 2011
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Having caught most of an episode of the TV series "The Story of Maths" by Marcus du Sautoy, I was quite looking forward to the audio-CD of this radio series. On one level, it delivers what is a very interesting and accessible series of public science pieces, giving some of the details behind the great mathematical discoveries since Sir Isaac Newton. But on a different level, sometimes the "Brief" of the title is far too brief and you are left wondering why individuals behaved they way they did (for instance, why exactly was Galois fighting a duel in the first place?)

Being fifteen minutes each, the episodes are easily digestible, particularly given the complex nature of some of the theorems examined. Sometimes the language used can be a little grating: I'd never heard of it being referred to as "the calculus" before and I was almost at screaming point after a dozen or so references to a sine wave being like the Loch Ness Monster's humps (yes, we got the picture the first time, thank you). Not being a mathematician, I have to rely on du Sautoy to get the details right, which I was quite happy to do up until he referred to the mean as the most common number in a normal distribution series; I was always taught that that was the mode. A terminology glitch to help casual enthusiasts, probably, but it did make me question what else might be being fudged.

The other annoying point is the exclusive look at Western mathematicians, with little acknowledgement of the work of non-European scholars. Okay, this is supposed to be a brief history but, with the exception of Ramanujan, it is a rather glaringly ethnocentric viewpoint. The fact it also only deals with 300 years or so of mathematics is a real shame, as some earlier theorems are mentioned in passing that really deserve more attention. Still, as a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I couldn't help giggling at the mention of non-Euclidian geometry.

Overall, "A Brief History of Mathematics" is a mixed bag, no doubt hampered by the series' time constraints, but still worth a listen as a starting point for further inquiry.
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 August 2011
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is, as it says, a brief history of mathematics - too brief. It consists of ten short episodes which discuss various topics of mathematics and the people who formulated them. Each topic is fascinating and I wanted to know more. I also wanted to know more details of the connections between each topic. That is the major problem, to do this it would immediately cease to be a BRIEF history and become something far more complex and lengthy.

It was also at times frustrating talking about problems such as the Seven Bridges of Koenigsberg and the hypercube which makes up La Grande Arche de la Defense in Paris. These needed to be demonstrated visually. Things got better when I started to look at the relevant images on Google as I listened.

Another thing that niggled was that some of the discussions of the way the theories were applied were quite superficial. This might be because they were far too complex to be understood in any depth by the non mathematician. Perhaps, but it also raises a problem I have found with the teaching of mathematics, certainly at school level, that is that you are taught mathematical topics but not how to apply them or why they are important. For example, I was taught calculus at school and was very good at it, but I hadn't a clue what I was doing when I completed exercise after exercise of differentiation problems. In the first episode discussing Newton and Leibnitz and the development of calculus, I thought I was going to get my answer, but no, apart from being told it was to do with movement and that it was used nowadays to predict movements in the money market, I know no more. I wanted to know HOW it was used.

So in many ways these discs are deeply frustrating, but, and I think this may have been Professor du Sautoy's real intention, I am even more interested in maths and I want to know more.
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VINE VOICEon 20 August 2011
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This audio series is billed as a BRIEF history of mathematics, so it is hardly surprising that it contains only a superficial look at the subject. And, as other reviewers have pointed out, it covers only Western mathematics since the time of Newton.

The format of each episode is to give you a bit of historical detail about the individual, together with a summary of their main contributions to the subject and some illustrations of how/where that area of maths is used. The style is anecdotal and accessible; personally I didn't find it patronising, but I can see why other people might.

For me, the mix didn't quite work The anecdotal history was probably intended to provide colour and personal interest (and that may work for some listeners) - to me it felt like irrelevant detail. And the maths veered between painfully detailed (two or three sentences explaining what a ratio of 1:2 is) and skating completely over the surface leaving me with unanswered questions (eg, how exactly did a Gaussian distribution help Gauss plot the path of asteroid Ceres???)

Of course, I suppose it would be exceedingly difficult to put across any more than the most basic mathematical ideas in an audio presentation - which made me wonder why DuSautoy chose this particular medium.

In terms of the audio CD itself, yes, it would have been nicer if they had removed the starting and ending jingles for each episode, and especially that nasty scraping sound (which I eventually worked out was supposed to be chalk on a blackboard!) which dashed unpleasantly from one ear to the other giving me a moment's dizziness every time.

Overall - I didn't think this was as good as his TV programmes.
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on 9 August 2011
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Marcus du Sautoy is one of those presenters who not only uses his passion for his subject to find a way to explain it in clear terms to the lay person, but is also able to generate a bit of that passion in his audience, and that has meant that I always watch his TV programmes when I spot them. I'm not as good at spotting good radio programmes (as I don't read the schedules), and always seem to come to them first on CD, however I like CDs to retain the episode structure, as I don't always want to sit through a whole disc in one go. So I was delighted to find that this 2 disc set contains the original ten fifteen minute episodes just the way they should be. And at 15 minutes, these programmes are very easy to schedule into your day.

Don't fall into the trap some people do of thinking that "if maths is boring, a history of maths must be doubly so" - the tales within are always fascinating, sometimes exciting, and here and there will make you smile or shake your head with incredulity. Each episode takes a look at one, sometimes two, different mathematicians and gives you their history, a feel of their personalities, what their discoveries were and why these achievements were important at the time, and very often remain so today.

If MdS has a flaw, it's that his insistence that mathematics is the greatest of the sciences occasionally leads him to say things about subjects outside of his sphere of interest that - as someone with modest knowledge in a range of sciences - I know to be naïve or miss the point, but he largely avoids that habit in this series. A series worth getting.
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on 18 August 2011
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I recently enjoyed the BBC TV series' "The Story of Science: Power Proof and Passion", "Science and Islam" and Marcus du Sautoy's own "The Story of Maths" and I was hungry for more. Given the chance to try out Du Sautoy's radio version on the history of maths I couldn't resist.

The sad thing about this series is the second word in the title - 'Brief'. Two and a half hours seems quite long when you say it, but with ten episodes to cover, Du Sautoy is limited to just a few key highlights for each of the personalities that he presents. It's great to whet your appetite, but leaves you wanting a little more.

Not being much of a math-head myself I can assure you that the level of mathematical knowledge and understanding needed to follow these episodes is not high. There are some mind bending sections, the subject of infinity being one, but generally Marcus concentrates on the people and keeps the maths as simple as possible.

If you enjoyed the series' I mention at the start of this review, you'll very likely get something out of these CDs, but don't expect as rich an experience as you got with the TV shows. Being quite short there is little to warrant listening to the series more than 2 or 3 times, but it is worth listening to at least once.
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 August 2011
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I only saw one episode of Marcus Du Sautoy's recent TV series, and it was very interesting. So when this came up I jumped at the chance to get it. Engaging for his boyish enthusiasm, Du Sautoy has a wonderfully straightforward, unpretentious delivery. Very much a popular series for the uninitiated layman, one hopes the maths boffins will also enjoy hearing their subject getting a boost. Rather than being an exposition of the hardcore technicalities of maths, i.e. about the maths itself, this is a story of the people involved, and their contributions to the evolution of a branch of human inquiry that has, as time goes on, proved ever more intriguing, esoteric, and yet also practical and enlightening.

Du Sautoy makes extravagant claims for maths, calling it the "queen of the sciences", and quoting, or rather (I think) paraphrasing, Galileo - "the universe ... cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics ... [without an understanding of which] one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth." Not being a mathematician, I can't go as far or as confidently as Du Sautoy, but I think it'd be churlish not to agree that, whether you go all the way with him or not, maths is clearly hugely important to our ongoing human development, and the evolution of scientific understanding.

Over ten episodes Du Sautoy covers numerous stars of the mathematical firmament, starting with the controversy over 'the calculus', and who got their first: Leibniz or Newton? Whilst Newton voted himself, via his position in the Royal Society, official winner of the debate, Du Sautoy is, one feels, more in Leibniz's corner. The story behind this is fascinating. He then goes on to cover such characters as Euler, amongst whose many achievements was a definitive solution to the 'seven bridges of Königsberg' conundrum, which has, so the series tells us, become fundamental to the workings of the internet!

Fourier's work, in part as one of Napoleon's "army of intellectuals" on his ill-fated but but culturally fruitful Egyptian campaign (the Rosetta stone was part of the booty), was initially about the study of heat, but ultimately enlightend us about all kinds of waves, including light and sound. Brian Eno is brought in - each episode features a guest expert or two - to explain and demonstrate how Fourier analysis can be used in modern music, which, as a musician, I found very interesting.

Whilst aware of Gauss via my work as an illustrator (using Gaussian filters in Photoshop, for example), learning how Gaussian distributions on graphs helps statisticians sift useful patterns from apparently muddled data, and how this has become so useful in such areas of applied science as modern medicine, was very interesting. By contrast with Gauss, I'd never heard of Bolyai, Loachevski or Riemann. Du Sautoy is "pained" that these men, on whose shoulders Einstein (apparently not the greatest mathematician himself) and his theory of relativity rest, are not better known. Whether I'll remember these new and obscure names, I don't know, but their story is fascinating, and thanks to Du Sautoy I have at least now heard of them.

Du Sautoy gets most enthused when the maths is at its most 'pure': he loves Cantor and his infinity of infinities. This is an example where the concepts are easy enough for the general layman to understand, and yet touch on ideas that are either mind-blowing, or mind numbing, or quite possibly both. And then there's Poincaré, whose errors in a theory submitted to a prestigious maths competition (set up by the then king of Sweden) ultimately gave rise to chaos theory. And here we touch on a subject we love so much in Britain: the weather! Weather systems work according to rules, but tiny differences in the variables can produce massive differences in outcomes. Poincaré helped us see the limitations of maths: "you could understand, but you could not predict" as guest speaker Carl Murray says.

All the characters covered are interesting, and some are tantalisingly tragic, adding unexpected romance and pathos to the story of maths. One such is the young Évariste Galois, a staunch French republican killed aged 20 in a duel, whose insights have subsequently proven useful in physics, apparently working very well for the study of sub-atomic particles. Another touching story is that of Hardy, a pure mathematician who apparently didn't care too much for the practicality of his maths (a trait of 'real' mathematicians Du Sautoy claims is of the utmost importance: practical benefits may come hundreds of years later), and his correspondence and working relationship with a self-taught Indian mathematician, Ramanujan. Both were to driven to despair, indeed, both attempted suicide (unsuccessfully) at different times in their lives, driven half-crazy by, amongst other things, the 'demonic' primes. Following Ramanujan's death, aged only 33, Hardy said: "my association with him was the one truly romantic incident of my life". The fruits of their struggles? The complex codes that protect our personal data on the internet. Would Hardy have been pleased about this grubby commercial use of his obscure mathematical musings? Du Sautoy thinks not. But, either way, the story is fascinating.

An excellent series from the good ol' Beeb, proving that the license fee is still good value for money. I just wish their was more of this sort of thing on. Well worth shelling out for.
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VINE VOICEon 18 August 2011
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This excellently produced BBC audio production is more of a very brief history into some of the key figures in mathematics over time rather than a history of mathematics itself (although the two are obviously intertwined). Each of the episodes covers a mathematician, and then very briefly describes their discovery, and how that has affected the modern world.

The episodes are just long enough to grab your interest even if, like me, you are not a mathematician. However they are also short enough to avoid much of the complicated explanations that could turn us non maths type people off. Most people will have heard the names of the people discussed, but may well not be able to place them or know what they have done for modern life. And that is what this series explains best.

Easy to listen to, the author and guest speakers obviously have great enthusiasm for their subject yet are able to explain it in a (mostly) non baffling way. And the production quality is excellent too.

Overall I really enjoyed this, and it has certainly provoked my interest in certain areas and left me slightly baffled in others. (How can there be more of one infinite type of number than another?) A bit of personal research required I think...
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