Judge Gordon Sullivan laments that Americans only have one math, while Brits have maths.
Our reviews of The Code (2002) (published June 18th, 2004), The Code (2009) (published June 23rd, 2009), The Code (Blu-Ray) (published June 23rd, 2009), and The Story Of Math (published March 4th, 2010) are also available.
Engage your mind. Expand your world.
If I may put on my armchair mathematician's hat for a moment, I would argue that one of the things holding back the teaching of mathematics to grade and high schoolers is the fact that there is a very definite split between mathematical thinking, and mathematical doing. It's entirely possible to teach the rote, mechanical ability to perform various kinds of mathematics—solve triangles and quadratic equations or find the limit of a function—without actually learning much in the way of how and why these actions should be performed. On the other side, it's entirely possible to teach people to reason and think mathematically with ever actually making them perform a single mathematical operation. In my experience, the teaching of math too-often emphasizes the former at the expense of the latter. One way to avoid this problem is to put mathematics in context, and The Story of Math Collection can help students (both in and out of school) put some of the greatest moments in math history in context.
This set contains two main series:
• The Story of Math (or, as it's known in its British title sequence, The Story of Maths) is a four-part, four-hour investigation of some of the greatest mathematical discoveries in human history. Working as part travelogue, part educational journey, this series follows host Marcus du Sautoy (an Oxford professor) to various important locations in the history of mathematics, explaining the discoveries and their significance.
• The Code again follows Marcus du Sautoy as he investigates the possibility of a hidden mathematical code governing the natural world in this three-hour, three-part miniseries.
The implicit argument of shows like this is that math is interesting. It's something other than pure numbers and the mechanical repetition of formulas. In that respect, The Story of Math Collection succeeds admirably. Marcus du Sautoy is an engaging narrator/educator. He's authoritative without being pretentious or condescending, and he has a genuine love for the material. He doesn't do much to tell viewers how to do math (which is a good thing), but the general viewership seems aimed pretty squarely at the over-fourteen set. There are discussions of equations, and other topics that aren't generally introduced to younger students. However, both of these programs could be used with younger students because of the travelogue nature of the show. Du Sautoy is constantly visiting important sites and using computer graphics to illustrate his ideas; though some of these ideas might go a bit over the heads of those not yet introduced to algebra, the visual and narrative flair may keep younger viewers interested.
This set is obviously aimed at the teaching market; both series come with a viewer's guide and additional resources on the web. A bonus video—the 78-minute Music of the Primes—gives students and teachers another resource for making math "fun" as well. The Story of Math comes with mathematicians' bios as a bonus, while The Code gets a trio of short featurettes that explore other aspects of mathematical order (including a nice overview of M.C. Escher).
The shows themselves look up to standard broadcast quality. Though they're visually interesting, they're not meant to be big-budget visual extravaganzas. Still, they look good for contemporary broadcast shows, with clean, bright visuals and enough detail to satisfy. Each disc gets no more than two hours of material, so there are no compression problems to be found. The stereo audio tracks does a fine job keeping du Sautoy's voice audible and balanced with the shows' score.
As someone with advanced mathematical experience, I wasn't always engaged with any of these programs. Part of the problem is that I've heard many of the stories before. Many experienced math geeks will no doubt have heard them before as well. The other problem is that I'm not a huge fan of the travelogue format. I get why the show does it, but going to Greece doesn't help me understand the Pythagorean theorem any better. This is another way of saying that I wish the show was a little more innovative in its use of visuals to tell the story of math.
The other issue with this set is one of cost. Unless you caught the show on BBC America and are already a fan, this is a pretty hefty set to buy on a whim. Even those who enjoyed the program will have to ask if the series is likely to get enough repeat viewings to offset the price tag. Of course, for those purchasing the set to support teaching, the price tag will be worth it for all the use you can get out of this set, in a wide variety of classes and with a pretty wide variety of age groups.
For anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the history of math and how it shapes our understanding of the world, it's a worthwhile investment to spend the eight or so hours that The Story of Math Collection offers. From basic stories about famous mathematicians to explanations of equations and their use in everyday life, these series offer a visually interesting overview of important mathematical topics. Though it's probably only worth a rental to anyone who doesn't teach, math educators will likely want to snap up this five-disc set.
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