Thursday, April 9

Mathematics, the Universe and Everything

A few weeks ago on Horizon, comedian Alan Davies went on a journey through time and space...

Boosh. No, actually - maths.

Marcus de Sautoy is an Oxford professor of mathematics; I've read through his book The Music of the Primes several times and it's an inspiring read - flowing with the genius of a man who's not only able to see the numbers clearly, but who can vividly communicate the beauty of maths - it's immortality, it's infallibility, it's truth.

Marcus was tasked with showing Alan this wonder, and convincing him that maths can actually be amazingly good fun! There's a common stereotype and cultural stigma associated with mathematics and the sciences, which you'll be familiar enough with that I shan't go into it.

The problem is, that to understand/contribute to most of the fun stuff, you need to learn a lot of the really quite difficult stuff; this can require a certain mindset and it's not always obvious what the pay off is going to be for putting in the effort.

The quick wins are the situations where you can demonstrate a fundamental and beautiful idea without using any of what most people would consider "maths". Marcus introduces Alan to a fourth dimension in space, using physical examples and discussion in the place of equations and laws. They then explore the shape of the universe, and describe some of the implications of Perelman's proof of the Poincaré Conjecture.

[That's to do with how the entire universe can be finite, but still not have any "edges" - there's no magical "end of the universe", much to Douglas Adam's and Metron's disappointment...]

The show is a wonderful insight into the true importance of mathematics, and seeing Marcus's energy and Alan's glee on grasping new concepts makes me proud to be a student of the sciences. More importantly, we end on the revelation that:

The universe seems like it might be the icing on a four dimensional doughnut. Believe.

Anyway, with luck it might still be on the iplayer - check it out!