The Code
Athena // Unrated // $39.99 // June 19, 2012
Review by Rohit Rao | posted June 14, 2012
Highly Recommended
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I think it would be an understatement to say that the world is a wondrous place. Nature is filled with so much inexplicable beauty that we often take it for granted so as not to overload our circuitry. The Code, a BBC documentary for The Open University by way of Athena, forces a double-take by demonstrating that there is more order running through our surroundings than we can imagine; one defined by and built upon a foundation of mathematics.

Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of math at Oxford, is our fearless guide in this three part inquiry into what makes everything tick (we're talking about the entire universe here, people). He travels the globe, presenting us with amazing sights and phenomena before diving into how they derive from the same mathematical core that he's been piecing together before our very eyes. If any of this sounds boring or dense, I assure you this isn't the case at all. This is absolutely riveting material presented in captivating fashion by an engaging speaker and a carefully selected cadre of experts.

Du Sautoy launches the first part, dedicated to Numbers, with an intriguing look at how the proportions of the Chartres Cathedral follow the same rules that govern what we deem harmonious in the musical realm. This is followed by a segment that draws a discussion of prime numbers out of the life cycles of Cicadas. To hear Du Sautoy explain the implicit logic behind the breeding practices of the bugs seems rational until you absorb the fact that evolution took care of all the heavy lifting behind the scenes...then it's mind-boggling. The same feeling crept over me as a visit to the Sunkenkirk Cumbria stone cirlce quickly grew into a borderline eerie discussion about the inescapable nature of Pi.

The second part (my personal favorite) offers up even more striking visual appeal as it delves into Shapes. We learn about the geometric forces that underpin our very existence. As evidence of this, Du Sautoy walks us through the reasons why honeybees instinctively give their hives a hexagonal structure. As part of the explanation, we get to witness the prowess of Tom Noddy, a bubble art expert who skillfully uses ephemeral bubbles to demonstrate the relative efficiencies of different shapes. Watching Tom quickly blowing and merging bubbles into precise geometric shapes is a stunning sight to behold (one of many with this documentary).

The third (and final) topic covered is that of Prediction. Patterns gradually emerge from complexity as Du Sautoy tells us tales of a sly Christopher Columbus using lunar tables to predict lunar eclipses in what amounted to magic for certain island natives. Elsewhere he discusses the killing spree of Jack the Ripper and has experts explain how geographic profiling could have helped to pinpoint his location. Of course, Du Sautoy also remembers to have fun as he visits a Rock Paper Scissors league in Philly (seriously) and later engages in an old-fashioned jellybean guessing competition. I mentioned stunning sights earlier and there is a breathtaking one on display here as we get a close look at the synchronized flight patterns of Starlings as they migrate to Denmark. I've seen plenty of feathery flights before (and I know you have too) but I've never seen one quite like this.

I could go on and on about all the wonders on display in The Code but that would be a disservice to you. You deserve to see this presented in all of its glory with Du Sautoy guiding you step by step. If you haven't realized by now, he is the documentary's ace in the hole. He's the furthest possible thing from the stuffy professorial image I had in my mind. Bolstered by the skilled crew filming all this (I can't stop thinking about those bubbles and Starlings), he gives us the impression that we are part of the discovery process and not merely being talked down to. I have a heavy science and math background but I don't think that accurately explains why I'm so enamored by this show. I sincerely believe it is designed to attract and reward imaginative people with inquisitive minds. If you've read this far, I can only assume you fit the bill.


The anamorphic widescreen image was presented with great clarity and sufficient fine detail (especially in close-up shots). I did notice a tiny bit of moiré in some of the geometric patterns but not enough to be concerned. Additionally, a few of the darker scenes unsurprisingly sported amped up grain. On the whole though, the vivid colors of all the natural phenomena came through without issue. This is definitely an above average presentation.

The audio was presented in a Dolby Digital Stereo track with optional English SDH subtitles. Given how cinematic the material feels, I won't deny that a surround sound mix would have been nice but I need to remind myself that this is a documentary about math after all. With that reality check in place, I give the audio track credit for being perfectly clear with Du Sautoy's voice coming through without any difficulty. The presentation won't necessarily knock your socks off but it provides the varied soundtrack with ample support.

The extras for this release primarily consist of 3 short featurettes (each roughly 4 minutes long) dedicated to different mathematical concepts, created by BBC for The Open University. Phi's the Limit, for obvious reasons, covers Phi which is also known as the Golden Ratio. It is considered a pleasing proportion because it shows up repeatedly in various historical examples of renowned beauty (the Mona Lisa, Cathedrals etc.). This then leads into a discussion of the Fibonacci Sequence and how it explains the breeding pattern of rabbits.

Go Forth and Multiply introduces us to the Ethiopian multiplication system which seems inherently weird to any of us but surprisingly works. Imagining the Impossible: The Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher gives us a peek into the famous artist's M.O. with much discussion of Moebius strips, Impossible triangles and other visual illusions. This is a fascinating piece and easily my favorite of the lot. Lastly, the release includes a 12 page Pamphlet which acts as a guide to some of the concepts covered during the documentary. It's not essential but is a nice addition.

You don't need to have aced calculus in school to enjoy The Code. This documentary sucks us in with unusual sights and unexplainable phenomena only to demonstrate that there is usually a mathematical explanation for them. It also has the good sense to largely shield us from the gory details which could prove intimidating and confusing. Instead narrator Marcus du Sautoy conspires to bring us along on the ride with his easy and direct style. The cinematic effect imparted to the material is equally impressive; one that the production crew should be commended for. Equal parts informative and thrilling (yeah, I said it) this comes Highly Recommended.

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