In this opening programme Marcus du Sautoy looks at how important and fundamental mathematics is to our lives before looking at the mathematics of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece.
Du Sautoy commences in Egypt where recording the patterns of the seasons and in particular the flooding of the Nile was essential to their economy. There was a need to solve practical problems such as land area for taxation purposes. Du Sautoy discovers the use of a decimal system based on the fingers on the hands, the unusual method for multiplication and division. He examines the Rhind Papyrus, the Moscow Papyrus and explores their understanding of binary numbers, fractions and solid shapes.
He then travels to Babylon and discovered that the way we tell the time today is based on the Babylonian 60 base number system. So because of the Babylonians we have 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour. He then shows how the Babylonians used quadratic equations to measure their land. He deals briefly with Plimpton 322.
In Greece, the home of ancient Greek mathematics, he looks at the contributions of some of its greatest and well known mathematicians including Pythagoras, Plato, Euclid, and Archimedes, who are some of the people who are credited with beginning the transformation of mathematics from a tool for counting into the analytical subject we know today. A controversial figure, Pythagoras’ teachings were considered suspect and his followers seen as social outcasts and a little be strange and not in the norm. There is a legend going around that one of his followers, Hippasus, was drowned when he announced his discovery of irrational numbers. As well as his work on the properties of right angled triangles, Pythagoras developed another important theory after observing musical instruments. He discovered that the intervals between harmonious musical notes are always in whole number intervals. It deals briefly with Hypatia of Alexandria.
Mathematics is the Empress of the Sciences. Without her, there would be no physics, nor chemistry, nor cosmology. Any field of study depending on statistics, geometry, or any kind of calculation would simply cease to be. And then, there are the practical applications: without maths there’s no architecture. No commerce. No accurate maps, or time-keeping: therefore no navigation, nor aviation, nor astronomy.
She is all-powerful: and she rules ruthlessly. Imperious and unyielding, mathematics brooks no dissent and tolerates no error. In an age of uncertainty, mathematics is the only discipline that generates knowledge that’s immutably, incontestably, and eternally true.
In this landmark series of films for BBC FOUR, Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, escorts viewers through the history of this most important of all intellectual disciplines. In a journey that takes him through the ages and around the world, he examines the development of key mathematical ideas and shows how, in a multitude of surprising ways, mathematical ideas underpin the science, technology, and culture that shape our world.
As Marcus shows, mathematics was part of the bedrock of intellectual life in the world’s great civilisations. It was central to the survival of some of the world’s most powerful empires. And even today, mathematical knowledge remains the motor-force that drives the modern world.
The films in this ambitious series offer clear, accessible explanations of important mathematical ideas but are also packed with engaging anecdotes, fascinating biographical details, and pivotal episodes in the lives of the great mathematicians. Engaging, enlightening and entertaining, the series gives viewers new and often surprising insights into the central importance of mathematics, establishing this discipline to be one of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements.
Content last updated: 10/04/2008
Source: BBC Open University