VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 August 2011
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.