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Case Number 18452: Small Claims Court

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The Story Of Math

Acorn Media // 2005 // 232 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // March 4th, 2010

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All Rise...

For some international flavor, Judge Daryl Loomis submitted this review from a Beirut marketplace.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Story of Math Collection, published December 29th, 2012, is also available.

The Charge

Zero minus one equals negative fun!

The Case

Mathematics is the basis for all of the wonders in our daily lives, from our DVDs and players to the computer you read this review on; math is everywhere. The building blocks of math go back thousands of years, yet people still discover new complexities, and it continues to be a wide-open field of study. Oxford mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy, with assistance from the BBC, attempts to tackle some of the wild history of the subject in this four-part series, The Story of Math.

The Language of the Universe
To show us the very origins of mathematics, we begin in Egypt and the land once known as Mesopotamia. Here, du Sautoy describes the practical applications like the need for weighing items and commerce that forced the creation of a system of math. He then moves on to Greece, where he discusses the origins of theoretical math. It is here that Euclid, the king of geometry, wrote Elements of Geometry, the greatest textbook ever written.

The Genius of the East
Du Sautoy next travels east to China, where the first efficient system of counting was developed. Counting may be the stuff of children today, but describing, and especially writing, large complex numbers is a high-concept idea that went through many awful incarnations before settling on the incredible system we have today. Now to India, where the concepts of zero, negative numbers, and trigonometry were first invented; absolutely Earth-shattering developments for complex math. Du Sautoy closes this episode discussing the Muslim world, where geometry was first translated into numbers, allowing for the invention of algebra by Muhammad al-Khwarizmi.

The Frontiers of Space
Du Sautoy returns closer to home to England and Germany, where Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently invented their own systems of calculus. Our guide travels quickly through the years, discussing how these concepts have given us the ability to think in multiple dimensions and forced us to re-evaluate the oft-considered god-like reverence for Euclid's geometry.

To Infinity and Beyond
At the dawn of the 20th Century, David Hilbert proposed twenty-three problems that he felt were most important to the future of mathematics. We close out the series with a discussion of a few of these, some of which have been proven beyond a shadow of doubt, and some that remain only theories. The concepts are bizarre, but the stories surrounding the attempts to solve these problems show how math crosses cultural boundaries and truly is a universal language.

Was I asleep when educational programming became travelogues? It seems that, over time, this material becomes more and more about the spectacular views and less about the learning, but maybe that's just me being stodgy. Nonetheless, du Sautoy travels the world to bring us the illustrious history of the subject, taking us to every major mathematical center in the world. It seems like such a waste of money to feature shots of du Sautoy walking along the Great Wall or the Pyramid of Giza. Interesting? Yes. Beautiful? Very much so. Expensive? I'm sure, but I guess the money has to be spent somewhere.

It does help to put faces to the people who worked their lives for a subject that doesn't come with a lot of glamour. The Story of Math (which, incidentally, is really called The Story of Maths, pluralized in the fashion of Her Majesty) takes the subject out of the lecture room and makes it an informative, curiosity-stoking four hour journey. The episodes increase in complexity as they progress, just as the math does, but du Sautoy consistently does a good job of explaining the concepts. Still, listen closely, because the higher level stuff really is quite difficult. I've studied Euclid, Newton, Leibniz, and a few of the other people mentioned, but once we're in modern times, things get pretty complicated. The first two episodes would be appropriate for most high school math classes; the second two are some AP-level stuff, if not harder. Maybe I'm just getting worse at math as the years pass.

Acorn Media has done a good job with their release of The Story of Math, a three-disc set that includes another three-part short series as an extra feature. These are high-quality television productions and the image and sound both reflect this. The image is solid in both the copious location footage and the computer-generated demonstration models. The stereo sound is also good; nothing special, but completely acceptable. The only extra is The Music of the Primes. In three half-hour episodes, du Sautoy begins where he left off in The Story of Math, with Hilbert's 8th Problem, the Reimann Hypothesis. I couldn't begin to explain the problem, but it involves the prime numbers (whole numbers that can be divided only by themselves and one) and finding a pattern to predict when the next will come in the series, or something like that. By the end of the main program, it was hard to keep up with the concepts, so I was very welcome to have du Sautoy slow down and focus on one idea for a while. It'll take more study for me to be able to come close to understanding even the basics of the problem, but this is a nice start. It's as good as the main program, though I question some of the musical choices (The theme from Suspiria? Math's not supposed to be terrifying), and is a valuable addendum to The Story of Math.

Mathematics is a tough subject for a lot of people, myself included, but Marcus du Sautoy does a very good job explaining the underlying concepts and their applications.

The Verdict

This is very interesting stuff. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 232 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Instructional
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Bonus Episode
• Bios
• Study Guide


• Official Site

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