The Story of Maths, BBC4

by | Oct 9, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A fascinating journey into the roots and evolution of mathematics, but at times it did send you spinning back to school with such terminology as quadratic equation and irrational numbers and the related hopelessness.

What was good about it?

• Host Marcus du Sautoy and his efforts to distance his demeanour from a dusty old professor choking on asbestos chalk dust in a school made from the solidified misery of bored pupils on detention.

• Right from the off, we saw Marcus vigorously playing chess with himself, striding moodily through a desert, or ambling along a ledge of the Great Pyramid.

• It was fascinating to observe the evolution of mathematics, from its origins in Egypt where it was necessitated by a need to divide up land and crops, and, of course, determine taxes.

• Marcus then went on to explore how the Babylonians were more advanced than the Egyptians, using maths to aid in their status as a centre of regional trade in the city of Damascus. And how the Babylonians used a base 60 system, as opposed to the modern day base 10, and was calculated by a combination of the 12 knuckles on one hand and the five digits on the other. Remnants of its use can be observed to this day with 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour. They were also the first civilisation to come up with the concept of ‘zero’.

• The Greeks built on the advances of the Babylonians as they invented a ‘proof’ system to lay out mathematical theorems that could be universally applied rather than the narrower Babylonian methods that worked on a case by case system.

What was bad about it?

• While the Babylonians may have devised many mathematical formula still in use today, they also came up with the quadratic equation – the very mention of which had us sweating chilled ice and frantically trying to remember the correct notation, now was it: brackets minus 4a over 2ab close brackets, oh we can’t remember.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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