"The Story of Math Collection" is a packaging of two, British TV documentary series' from Oxford mathematics professor, Dr. Marcus du Sautoy. The collection consists of "The Story of Math" and "The Code." I had previously reviewed "The Story of Math" a few years back and the discs presented here are identical, and as my opinion on the program is still the same, that portion of the review will be re-used.
The Story of Math
Athena is quickly becoming one of my favorite DVD companies. When I saw the title "The Story of Math" pop up on the list of screeners, I quietly chuckled, thinking "boring." Then I saw this was an Athena release and thought back to their release of a documentary series on mapping, "The Edge of the World," that was absolutely amazing. I decided to give "The Story of Math" a shot and was pleasantly rewarded for my efforts.
Despite my own background in the sciences, I've never been a big fan of math. I assume, like many others, math wasn't always presented in school as engaging. My memories of all but a handful of math classes are filled with tedious practice and concepts that remained, by and large abstract. "The Story of Math" or by it's original British title, "The Story of Maths" is a 2008 BBC production for Open University (a British distance education program), starring Dr. Marcus du Sautoy, professor or mathematics as Oxford. Over the course of the series' four, roughly hour-long episodes, du Sautoy does the impossible: he makes math engaging and relevant, even when the concepts are baffling, and he dispels the assumption that mathematicians are boring.
The program wastes no time, jumping straight into things with a look at the most basic of concepts and their origins throughout many ancient civilizations. The producers spared no expense and du Sautoy winds up in various relevant locales, pulling the viewer deeper into the journey of mathematics evolution. Despite having a solid grasp on all the concepts featured in the first two episodes, du Sautoy's approach was refreshing and provided the much-needed relevance that would have made learning these concepts easier in the first place. The connection between math and life are made through concepts as commonplace as our method of tracking time, to the reason why music sounds like music.
The journey of math covers almost every corner of the globe, from Europe, to Greece and the Middle East to Asia, to name a few. Our host hammers home the idea that math evolved in different ways, in different regions, but ultimately the subject as a whole was interdependent; advances in the East, paved the way for advances in the West and vice-versa. Even as the series delves into advanced topics in the latter two episodes, the appreciation for this shared knowledge is evident and despite not being able to fully understand with one viewing what du Sautoy was talking about at times, I was able to have a fairly good idea of how we got there.
Despite running a tad shy of four hours, "The Story of Math" didn't bore me one bit. It left me wanting to know more, more open to sitting down with one of my college texts and taking a look at some of those math concepts I merely learned just to pass the class. As a kid I hated math, but what math I used throughout my studies in science, I came to respect thanks to a necessary relevancy. Dr. du Sautoy fills in those gaps and becomes, I dare say, the Carl Sagan for mathematics.
"The Code" is very similar in structure and presentation to "The Story of Math," but unlike that fantastic series, delves into more theoretical applications of mathematics. Once again hosted by du Sautoy, "The Code" just doesn't have the widespread appeal due to the points being made, often feeling obtuse. The first of three, 50-odd-minute episodes, "Numbers" will test the viewer's patience with what feel like incomprehensible tangents that eventually find their footing into sound theories, but theories not necessarily accessible to someone with a limited math background. Fortunately the remaining two episodes are considerably more engaging and comprehendible.
"Shapes" is truly the highlight of the short series, with du Sautoy in top form as he explains the mathematical proclivities of nature, beginning with mention of a honeycomb, then using bubbles to show how nature likes to effectively arrange things, thus showing evidence why a honeycomb using hexagons over any other polygon. "Predictions" finishes out the series and might actually attract the attention of those with little to no interest in math as it dangles the tantalizing topic of finding the "code" in life to predict behaviors. On only the most shallow level, it reminds one of "The Da Vinci Code" but du Sautoy has the integrity to only present the most fact based theories and while some of the ones presented are quite fantastical, they are entirely logical.
Ultimately, like "The Story of Math," "The Code" largely works when it does because of du Sautoy's incredibly knack at feeling accessible and unpretentious. His conversational tone of hosting and narration makes the material feel open to anyone, not just academics, even when the topics being covered might be more clearly following a brief refresher. "The Code" is sadly a step-down in terms of overall quality from "The Story of Math," but those were incredibly lofty shoes to fill and quite frankly, the series shouldn't be viewed as a sequel. It's a reasonable exploration of a special topic in a wide field and admirably makes its message known, even if the ride is a bit dull at times.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is as sharp as one would expect for a recent BBC production. As du Sautoy travels to many fascinating locales over the course of the program, the pleasing video quality highlights the natural beauty. It's an added treat coming from a program focused, at its core on numbers. Detail isn't feature film quality, but is plagued with no compression artifacts or edge enhancement.
The stereo English audio track isn't quite as dynamic as the production quality would indicate, but it serves the purpose well. The narration of du Sautoy is clear and prominent, while the mood setting soundtrack, let's you know it's there but never dominates. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included.
The extras for the main program consist of text biographies for mathematicians mentioned over the course of the program, as well as a printed viewer's guide providing a glossary of math terms and some questions to ponder. The set's most substantial extra comes in the form of its third disc, an earlier du Sautoy program titled, "The Music of the Primes." Running 78-minutes in length, it encapsulates three smaller episodes, all centered on the concept of prime numbers and specifically the Riemann hypothesis. Like "The Story of Math" it is an engaging, but more tightly focused program, that could have easily been released on its own.
"The Code" features its own 12-page viewers guide and three "Math Shorts," which run around four-minutes each, covering topics such as "Phi's the Limit," "Go Forth and Multiply," and "Imagining the Impossible: The Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher."
"The Story of Math" remains one of the finest mathematics documentaries I've ever seen and revisiting it doesn't change my opinion of Dr. du Sautoy one bit; he's the rare academic who successfully conveys the wonder of education and his particular field of study to the public; he may not be as prolific as Sagan or Attenborough, but to put him in their company isn't much of a stretch. "The Code" on the other hand is very much a special interests topic and the audience is far more narrow; it's brief, sometimes obtuse, and a lot different in tone than "The Story of Math." Ultimately, I'd recommend casual viewers just seek out a copy of "The Story of Math," but those who aren't scared off, this set is a solid value. Recommended.