What to say if you liked it
An intriguing insight into the evolution of numbers and how they have become inherent in almost every aspect of daily life.
What to say if you didn’t like it
An idiot’s guide to mathematics for children too stupid to pay attention in class for more than three seconds who require gratuitous graphics and a wilfully duplicitous narrative to be taught the rudiments of numbers.
What was good about it?
• Terry Jones’s jaunty presentation where he performed the alchemy of making maths seem interesting.
• Just like as in the equally enlightening Light Fantastic, the importance of numbers in many areas of human evolution was lucidly and humorously illustrated, such as how Pythagoras manipulated numbers to discover patterns such as triangle numbers and square numbers, while his more secular successor Archimedes came up with notions which helped cartographers translate the curvature of the Earth onto two-dimensional maps.
• The characterisation of “1” as it began its journey as a humble etching on a bone in some remote cave, through being a “cubit” measurement in ancient Egypt, a soldier in the Roman Empire, a member of he Indian numerals (which form the basis of our numerical symbols today), through to its contemporary incarnation as a binary number (with zero) which are used in every nuance of the digital age, such as computers.
• That two of the most crucial leaps forward in the evolution of numbers were impelled by capitalism. The Sumerians invented tokens to represent numbers (enabling subtraction), because of the necessity of calculating sales, profits and taxes in trade. And when Indian numerals (1, 2, 3 etc) usurped Roman numerals and the abacus system (I, II, III etc) in Europe it was because Indian numerals allowed bankers to determine a more precise rate of compound interest reaping more money for them.
• The Aboriginal tribe in central Australia who have lived for millennia without numbers, except for “1”. Terry explained how a grandfather would list the names of his grandchildren rather than simply say how many he had, time was described by the position of the sun in the sky, while distances to landmarks were, rather wonderfully, depicted through ancient songs.
• How the Egyptians transformed “1” into a measurement – the cubit – and disseminated the knowledge about their kingdom to ensure uniformity and geometric precision the construction of the Pyramids. They were also the first civilisation to prescribe a symbol for one million.
• We already knew about the origins of the word “decimation” (if a Roman legion was poor in battle a random one tenth of the troops were killed as punishment), but it should now deter people from using it as a misnomer for something altogether more devastating.
• Leaving in the outtake in which Terry Jones was unexpectedly locked out of the temple which has the oldest recorded use of “zero”.
• The absurd and utterly useless numbers Indians came up with such as a Palyon, which is a cube of lamb’s wool 10 kilometres high to which you can only add a single
strand every century.
What was bad about it?
• The Aboriginal tribe who had resisted the advent of numbers encroaching on their culture for hundreds of years had finally succumbed to that, but also, more tragically, to the fashion of wearing denim jeans, too.
• Terry Jones and a mathematician playing harmonies on plant pots in a garden centre, to which passers-by were seen responding to with a sudden curiosity. The worst factor of this was that anything with even the slightest sensation of excitement would cause a stir in a garden centre; after staring at plants for what seems like an eon and a day, even tacky plastic garden chairs appear like visions of Aphrodite whilst drab paving slabs assume the form of pulchritudinous Renaissance marble sculptures.
• The disturbingly hirsute fingers of the man etching Roman numerals into the wall.
• Despite his exhaustive chronicle, Terry didn’t offer a solution to that most vexing of mathematical mysteries – the exact purpose of imaginary numbers which cause more mental anguish among A-level students than their first romantic heartbreak.