Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sautoy's Maths

To me mathematics has always been like a pretty girl I was afraid to talk to. She seemed friendly enough with everybody else but I could never muster the courage to say hello.

Today I stumbled upon this wonderful documentary called "The Story of Maths" on BBC World. I think it was the second of a three-part series but I was hooked by the very first image I saw on it - of reeds pressing into soft clay leaving impressions that would be later deciphered as evidence of quadratic equations in ancient Mesopotamia.

Presented by Prof. Marcus de Sautoy, it seemed to be connected in some way to an article that appeared in the Economist a few days back. It had presented some interesting stories linked to the various types of numbers -

Irrational numbers: The relationship between musical pitch and lengths of viberating strings (double the length of the string and the note falls by an octave). This led Pythagoras and his followers to believe that all of nature must be expressed as ratios of whole numbers. But when one of them discovered that a simple geometric ratio (length of a square's diagonal to the length of its size) gave an 'irrational' answer, he was actually bumped off!

Negative numbers: The concept was rubbished by leading mathmaticians in the 1700's

Imaginary numbers: Since bothe negative and positive numbers, when multiplied by themselves, give positive answers, such numbers are labelled "imaginary", and regarded by many as meaningless. The ideas was accepted only after Carl F. Gauss came up with the idea that imaginary numbers could be considered perpendicular (?) is to real numbers.

Sautoy makes the pretty girl less intimidating but she continues to be enigmatic. One of these days, when she comes dressed in History, maybe I'll have a long chat with her...


  • The Story of Maths - BBC - Open University -
  • "When 1,2, not enough" - Arguments over what counts as a number - The Economist, Jan. 2009

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