Thursday January 17, 2013

Two Looks at the World of Math

KEENE, N.H. --

Story of Maths -- "The Story of Maths," on Athena Learning DVDs, loses the "s" on the American cover, becoming "The Story of Math: How Numbers Explain our Universe and Reveal Unseen Worlds." It has just been rereleased in a boxed set with another less successful mathematical miniseries, "The Code." But first, "The Story of Math."

Each of the four 57-minute segments is written and hosted by British mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, as he traces the development of the maths (number theory, geometry, calculus, and so on) from their beginnings in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, taking a detour to the advanced thinkers of China, India and the Islamic world, and then onward to the great mathematicians of Europe and America.

For those who have retained memories of the meanings of such terms as "quadratic and cubic equations," "infinite series," and "golden ratio," this will prove a fascinating 232 minutes.

Of course, there is somewhat too much of the narrator walking or driving towards the camera and then away from it, and other artsy devices to keep the eye on the screen. And "talking heads" will always be uninteresting. However, the subject is enough to hold most people’s attention if they start with any interest in mathematics

More specialized is a third DVD, which holds the 73-minute, three-part bonus feature, "The Music of the Primes.


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" Here the centuries-long investigation of the nature of prime numbers (those that cannot be divided by any smaller number other than 1, such as 2, 3, 5, 7, 11Š), leads to one of the great unanswered questions: how many primes there are as one goes further and further into the larger and larger numbers.

All in all, this set will certainly stimulate the imaginations of many viewers and perhaps inspire them to take a look at their old textbooks!

"The Code" is a three-part miniseries of 58 minutes each on two discs. The title refers to the inconceivably immense set of mathematical rules that explain the universe. Narrated by Marcus du Sautoy, the material is broken into three major topics: Numbers, Shapes, and Prediction. I give a high rating to only the third part.

In the misguided effort of television directors to make a supposedly dry subject an enjoyable experience, all sorts of computer-generated images are used, along with choppy shots that barely register on one’s attention, to produce (I would guess) some sort of excitement. What is lost is, of course, understanding what is being said.

For example, du Sautoy is inside the cathedral at Chartres, explaining how the structure of the building is based on the ratio of certain numbers. All sorts of lines appear superimposed over the actual parts of the building; but I could not understand what point was being made.

In the second part, I finally learned why bees create hexagons in their hives. The reason is quite simple and deals only incidentally with geometry. And that is where all the images slowed down, and I could understand the facts. The rest is as fast-paced as the first part.

Every cliché of the modern video documentary is used, including shots of the narrator walking from here to there; the narrator looking thoughtfully into space; speeded-up time lapse shots of human and vehicular movements in cities; and other gimmicks that annoy rather than illuminate.

It has reached the point that I would rather turn to my Teaching Company DVDs, on which an instructor stands behind a podium and simply says what has to be said. Less, in this case, is more.

However, for some reason, the last episode, which deals with probability and prediction, is straightforward and clearly explained. I wish future directors would learn from this -- but I doubt if they read reviews of their products.

There are three 4-minute clips from the Open University dealing with three aspects of math, such as the Golden Ratio. To the reader with little math background, they don’t reveal much. But they might induce some viewers to go deeper into those topics. 

The picture in both sets is in 16:9 widescreen, there are subtitles, and the usual Athena booklet is enclosed that might or might not prove helpful to the general viewer.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.