Review of The Code and comparison with the GOAT

This week’s episodes was called Shapes (or as we used to call it before the national curriculum – geometry)

The programme once again featured ghostly voiceovers, moody shots and bags of computer generated graphics. Again, like last week, my disclaimer is that the programme is not aimed at me. Having said that I liked this more than the last one though I didn’t see anything I could steal for my teaching.

Marcus kicked off the programme at the Devil’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the natural rock formation that made of hexagonal stones. From this it was off to see some bees use hexagons in their hives and the only number fact was that the angle involved was 120 degrees. Was this the only number mentioned this week?
After that we had bubbles, Platonic solids in Neolithic Scotland, soap films and the Munich Olympic Stadium, a stunning cave in Germany made of cubic crystals, non-symmetric snowflakes (they’re not all six sided!), Mandelbrot and fractals, and in particular the guy at Pixar who used fractals to generate mountain scenery. There was also a bit about Jackson Pollock and fractals. I’ve always found the claims of fractal dimension in his paintings to be a bit dubious but I have never had time to investigate them.

Comparison with GOAT
(GOAT is a sports abbreviation for Greatest Of All Time.)

The Code’s blog has a large number of disparaging comments. “Marcus du Sautoy’s first programme in the series “The Code” has tarnished his reputation.”, “Nothing new here except the labelling of this knowledge as The Code.” I can’t find some worse ones that I spotted last week (maybe they were deleted!).

Of course comments sections are always full of bile and don’t reflect the majority position — those with complaints leave the comments not those that are happy. It is interesting that Marcus is the target (and even Brian Cox receives a knock or too) whereas I would suspect presenters are constrained by the necessity of writing for wide appeal rather than for scientists. Science on TV is the problem not the presenters.

Anyhow, unflattering comparisons have been made with Carl Sagan, James Burke and Johnny Ball. Are they really the “Greatest of all time?”. Luckily, these days we can find examples of their work on the internet. Have a look at this clip from James Burke’s Connections (1978 and ten, (ten!) episodes). It starts with an intrusive irrelevant soundtrack and an excessive number of establishing shots, both accusations made against The Code.

My best discovery has been a whole episode of Johnny Ball’s Think of a Number. This was a children’s programme broadcast after school between 1977 and 1984 and is iconic for my generation. Have a look at the web page

This includes a complete episode (on right hand side) from 1980 which I remember from the time. I recall I enjoyed making the hexaflexagons! It is unimaginable that such a programme would be commissioned today. Sure, the programme looks a bit dated and is studio-bound. And despite the awful jokes and less depth than I remember, there is a lot of stuff in that 24 minute programme.

What about Carl Sagan whose Cosmos (1980, 13 episodes – those were the days!) is also significant for a generation of scientists? In the following clip, like Johnny Ball, he talks about Flatland.

Note that this is just over seven minutes long and is set in the same location with one person talking. I suspect no producer would attempt that now. (Loved the projection of the cube by the way.)

What really surprised me was I expected these programmes to be slow. Whenever I see a parody of a seventies science programme, they always stress the slowness and awkwardness. And yet, looking at these programmes I was surprised how fast paced they were. Think of a Number in particular moved through a lot of topics. Burke’s Connections was quite fast and was also visually quite quick, plenty of jumps and contrasting visuals. These days, we may complain programmes rely too much on images, certainly much more so than Think of a Number, but in Connections, the images come thick and fast.

The main comparison (at first glance) is that they are not so dense in terms of ideas. Did the 24 minute children’s Think of a Number have more ideas than the adult hour-long The Code? Maybe someone can do a study.

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