Thursday, 4 March 2010

Review: The Story of Maths

The Story of Maths is a four-part television series written and presented by Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford. As the title suggests, the series deals with the growth of mathematics in the ancient world all the way up to the current frontiers of mathematics.

This is no easy task, given the breadth of the subject and the small amount of airtime (c. 4 hours) provided to cover it. While it does delve into some of the fundamentals of mathematical thinking, the lack of detailed explanation can be frustrating sometimes, and one is often left feeling that a particular topic could have been covered more thoroughly.

However, one must remember that the purpose of the series is not to console and flatter those people who already have a decent understanding of mathematics, but to spark an interest in those who are less familiar with the subject. Which, let's face it, is most of the population.

The series covers a progression of innovations and discoveries, such as the evolution of the number and concept of zero and the discovery of calculus. The presenter himself, Marcus, remains at the forefront of things throughout, in a similar way to James Burke in Connections. However, during the first two episodes it is hard to get a grasp of Du Sautoy's personality.

The reason for this is clear. During the first two episodes Du Sautoy is dealing with the non-European, and gets rather too excited about how the East thought of everything before the West did. There's a lot of truth in this; for millenia the centres of mathematical thinking were not on the North European Plain but in India, China, the Middle East, Ancient Greece... et cetera.

This isn't so bad in itself, but in attempting to be honest about the West's deficit in understanding, it is easy to overcompensate on behalf of The East, which is what Du Sautoy ends up doing, a sort of reverse-Orientalism. Everything is 'fascinating' or 'ingenious' or 'incredible'. He puts the achievements on The East on something of a mathematical pedestal from which it can be appreciated and gazed at uncomfortably.

One senses, however, that once he enters the third and fourth episodes, which deal with post-Renaissance mathematics, he feels more at home. As the mathematics becomes more complicated he is able to take on the persona of the matmetician, rather than the historian. As the surroundings become more local, there is less pressure to patronise the audience into squeezing the eastern lemon for every last drop.

In the fourth episode, however, we are reminded (though not explicitly) how far removed from everyday practical mathematics the current frontiers of research seem. The activities that modern matmeticians seem to involve themselve with are almost playful and trival. For instance, the solving of Hilbert's Problems seems like some sort of party game, and the quest for different sorts of inifinity makes no sense unless the purpose of it is discussed in more detail which, in the programmes, it isn't. I am not saying this is true of all modern mathematics either - I don't know. But in a way, that's the point. I do not know, but this is the information the programme presents me with. In this respect, where the programme seeks to popularise it is in fact adding another layer of mystery.

Thus the viewer is left a little bewildered, and does not have any clear idea of where mathematics is heading or what it is meant to achieve, as if it had become a self-absorbed, elitist discipline like any number of Humanties subjects.

This was the impression left on me, anyway. If the programme really wished to tell a story, as the title purported, than it might have given us a more convincing final chapter. I had the feeling as though I was watching someone at a debate who was desperately trying to scrape for something to say, and threw together some things hoping that the aggregate of these things would somehow resemble an actual argument or point.

The first three episodes did not have this problem. There was a clear narrative which the non-mathematical brain could clearly appreciate and follow. The developments were for the most part logical. I appreciate that a lot of study produces results which can not neccesarily be forecasted or appreciated on the outset, but we should at least be left with some idea of what the fundamental issues in mathematics actually are. The audience, including myself, need to hear some sort of justification for these mathematical forays into the unknown.

I watched the series two months ago and a lot of the detail has since been lost on me. Thus, what I recall here is the general impression the series left on me. It may be that some of the things I think the series did not address were indeed addressed.

In all, however, I feel Du Sautoy did a fairly good job in tackling what is an immensely problematic (literally) subject.

No comments: