Review of The Code

In reviewing The Code I should note that this is a TV programme not aimed at me. Nonetheless as a mathematician I do like to see the portrayal of my subject in the number one mass medium. Actually, I’m unsure who the target audience is. At one point pi is introduced slowly over a number of minutes which would indicate that the producers thought that even the most basic ideas could not be assumed.

Leaving that minor criticism aside (after all it’s a problem with TV output rather than a specific fault of this programme), what was the programme like? What’s it about? Well, the intro said that it was about answering the question Why is the world the way it is? The precise definition of ‘The Code’ was a bit obscure but we all know they’re talking about maths.

The programme began with Marcus du Sautoy pacing around a cathedral at night with an echoing voiceover from a girl. We had fancy graphics, moody lighting, long shadows, strange camera angles and occasional uses of black and white. Hidden in the cathedral was a code, said du Sautoy, and then showed how mathematics showed up in its design. In particular the relation with harmonious combinations of notes. For example the altar divides the nave into a ratio of 8 to 5 which is a minor sixth in music.

This episode was about numbers, so primes, pi, i, acceleration due to gravity and a constant associated with a nautilus shell were explored. See the video below for a clip about this last constant.

To exemplify the appearance of pi the normal distribution was used. Unfortunately, the idea was to get the daily catch from a fisherman and weigh the fishes. From the mean and variance of this catch it is possible to estimate the largest fish the fisherman had caught in his 40 years of fishing the English channel. Marcus du Sautoy estimated 3 pounds as the largest. The fisherman said 3 to 3 and half pounds so the estimate was a bit out as it was at the lower end. Of course why anyone in the production team thought that a fisherman – known as a group for exaggerating – would give a realistic value for the largest fish is a mystery so Marcus’ calculation was probably right.

In addition to fishes and nautilus shells the programme featured cicadas, frequency analysis, psychological aspects of sounds, stone circles, air traffic control, some nice shots of the Alps and the night sky, and a trebuchet throwing a flaming ball. I liked that last bit, if only I could do it in my class, instead I have to make do with children’s toys.

Overall the programme is a slow and gentle walk through a part of mathematics. It ends with more moody night time shooting and spooky voiceovers. The central topic was numbers, which are not my thing – as a geometer I am interested in seeing next week’s programme on shapes.

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