Review: The Story of Maths

I’ve got a baby taking up at least one arm for hours and hours every day, and not a ton of brainpower to focus on anything too intense. So I’ve been ripping through some history documentaries, and the drier the better. Soon the 2008 BBC series The Story of Maths appeared in my Netflix recommendations.

I don’t read or watch much pop science media, because a lot of it is just kinda lousy. It’s easy to see why: explaining complex ideas is hard enough when the audience has some of the necessary vocabulary and mathematical maturity. But when you can’t assume any level of fluency, often the best you can do is give a little hint of what’s going on. It’s like trying to perform Shakespeare with only shadow puppets and grunts.

In The Story of Maths, Oxford Professor Marcus du Sautoy describes the biggest ideas in math, using history as an entry point. The first episode tackles ancient mathematical history, finishing with the Greeks; the second profiles Asian and Arabic advances and their lead into Renaissance Europe; the third European Enlightenment math; and the last wraps up with the 20th century, centered largely around Hilbert’s problems. And they’re neat explorations. Du Sautoy actually manages to do a pretty thorough and accurate∗ plow through thousands of years of math in only four hours.

A challenge for documentary series is what to put on the screen while somebody talks. This series is part math lecture, part travelogue. Du Sautoy explains Egyptian math in front of the Pyramids, Chinese math in Tiananmen Square. He visits Euler’s old school in St. Petersburg, and a monument to Cantor in Germany. It makes for beautiful backgrounds, and has given me some ideas for where to go on future math side trips.

The series visualizes a lot of the mathematical concepts they talk about. Sometimes du Sautoy uses handy objects – food from a Syrian marketplace and a scale to describe how the Mesopotamians solved systems of linear equations, for example. For more complicated displays, the series uses computer graphics. Sometimes it’s used well – their visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem is nice and straightforward – and sometimes…less so. CGI just appears for its own sake here and there, without really clarifying anything, and it sometimes comes off straight-up corny.

The real problem with the series is exactly what I said at the beginning: it’s hard to make a series for a general audience, especially one only four hours long. It’s necessarily fairly superficial with its treatment of mathematics. The explanation of how Egyptians multiply numbers was fast but probably understandable to pretty much anybody. The geometric way Mesopotamians solved quadratics at least gives you a feel for the technique. But as the series progresses, it starts to get hard to see any of the meat of the algorithms or concepts in the brief descriptions, unless you already know them to begin with.

That’s not to say mathematicians won’t enjoy the series. I loved the details that bring some of these people to life. Descartes was a mercenary! Poincaré preferred to work two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, and just ponder math the rest of the day while doing other things! Euler’s descendant pronounces his name the way we’re all told not to say it! And it’s incredible to see how much the ancients were able to do without algebra, or even useful numerals.

Naturally, women are few and far between. There’re no women at all between Hypatia and Julia Robinson (Noether and Kovalevsky are mentioned on the way), unless you count an extensive description of Kurt Gödel’s very patient wife, or a bizarre story about a method to allow a Chinese emperor to sleep with all the members of his harem in a limited time. Nobody’s expecting 50-50 parity here, but a couple quick dives into some other female mathematicians would have been nice. There were at least a number of modern female mathematicians and historians interviewed, especially in the first episode where we hear a lot from Annette Imhausen and Eleanor Robson. Unfortunately none of the talking head scholars get named on-screen in the Netflix version, I assume due to an aspect ratio conversion problem.

I’m sometimes a little jealous of my professor friends in the humanities who show videos in class. I’ve never seen a video that would be an efficient use of class for more than a few minutes. I’d still never show these in their entirety, even in the history of math class. But there are a few excerpts that might be a nice way to break up a class period. And the anecdotes I picked up will definitely make their way into future classes. Students really like these biographical and historical details, and they help reinforce that math didn’t spring fully-formed from textbooks, but took thousands of years of hard work from fallible human beings to develop. If you’re looking for some low-impact, quiet tv over the break, you might enjoy it!

*There are a couple disappointing descents into numerology around the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence, and from what I know Plutarch’s account of Archimedes’ death is apocryphal.

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