# 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.