Story of Math
Athena // Unrated // $59.99 // March 30, 2010
Review by Nick Hartel | posted March 27, 2010
Highly Recommended
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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 Shape 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 Video

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 Audio

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

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.

Final Thoughts

"The Story of Math" has something for everyone and earns the prized distinction of being a must-see documentary. For any educators, this is a blind buy, as the only other math program I could see capturing the attention of youth is he Disney classic "Donald in Mathmagicland," but that is obviously limited in its scope and a fraction of the length as a this program. I have no problem saying you'll likely be confused by later episodes; if your math skills aren't that strong, you'll find added value in revisiting even the earlier episodes. Nevertheless, "The Story of Math" is without a shadow of a doubt, the finest program I've viewed pertaining to the subject. It's engaging, exciting, well produced, and helmed by a wonderful host. Highly Recommended.

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