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Media Relations Office

Communications Group

The Open University

Milton Keynes

United Kingdom

t +44 (0)1908 653343

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For the attention of: News Editors

Thursday September 4 [PR5243]
The Open University tells The Story of Maths on BBC FOUR

TX: BBC FOUR, October 2008

Mathematics is the king and queen of the sciences. End of argument.

Simply put, without mathematics, maths to its friends, there would be no physics, nor chemistry, nor cosmology or astronomy. Any field of study depending on statistics, geometry, or any kind of calculation would simply cease to be.

Then, there are the practical applications: without maths there’s no architecture. No commerce. No accurate maps or time-keeping: therefore no navigation, nor aviation, electricity or cars – the list of maths-dependent disciplines is endless.

In this landmark series of four films for BBC FOUR, co-produced by The Open University, Professor Marcus du Sautoy escorts viewers on a journey that takes him through the ages and around the world, to Egypt, China, India, Russia, The Middle East, Europe and America.

He examines the development of key mathematical ideas and shows how, in a multitude of surprising and innovative ways, how these concepts underpin the science, technology, and culture that shaped our world.

Marcus shows how mathematics was part of the bedrock of intellectual life in the world’s great civilisations. It was central to the survival of some of the world’s most powerful empires. And how even today, mathematical knowledge remains the motor-force that drives the modern world. If you’re reading this on a computer screen, PDA or mobile phone, thank maths.

The films in this ambitious series offer clear, accessible explanations of important mathematical ideas but are also packed with engaging anecdotes, fascinating biographical details, and pivotal episodes in the lives of the great mathematicians. Engaging, enlightening and entertaining, the series gives viewers new and often surprising insights into the central importance of mathematics, establishing this discipline to be one of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements.

Robin Wilson, Professor of Pure Mathematics with The Open University and an academic adviser for the series said: “To many people, Maths is the subject they learned at school: a dry list of numbers, equations and formulas and was always so. But that’s not what maths is really like. Mathematics is a creative, fluid human activity, invented, conceived, refined and expanded on by humans.

Like art, music and literature, maths has a history and a pantheon of pioneers, such as Pythagoras, Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. In the series, Marcus stands next to a statue of Newton and asks passers-by, who he was and what he did. Only one person knew about his greatest mathematical accomplishment - and it had nothing to do with being hit by an apple!

“The programme looks at the development of mathematical knowledge in the ancient world in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, Greece and Baghdad. In fact, the first quadratic equations were solved in what is now Iraq.

“The history of maths is important in understanding its development but the series also looks at its contemporary forms and applications. For instance, many people have had fun with Prime Numbers, but they were of little practical use until the rise of cryptography in the past 20 or 30 years. The security of your bank account or credit card is largely based on prime numbers.” has a large variety of material to support the series including many interactive mathematical games. Marcus du Sautoy also reveals more abut his personal journey through the history of maths, and some surprising secrets about the way ancient cultures counted are explored further at

The Open University has also launched a special 10 point short course called TM190 The Story of Maths to accompany the series. It is for people who want to take their curiosity and learning about the series further.

Editor’s Notes

The Story of Maths’ is an Open University/BBC co-production for BBC FOUR.

The series will broadcast on BBC FOUR from Monday October 6 at 9pm and for three weeks subsequently.

Executive Producer for the BBC is David Okuefuna. Series Producer for the BBC is Kim Duke. Executive Producer for The Open University is Catherine McCarthy. The Open University Academic Advisers are Prof Robin Wilson, Prof Jeremy Gray and Dr June Barrow-Green. Broadcast Learning Executive for The Open University is Dr Janet Sumner.

The Open University and BBC have been in partnership for more than 30 years, providing educational programming to a mass audience. In recent times this partnership has evolved from late night programming for delivering courses to peak time programmes with a broad appeal to encourage wider participation in learning.

All broadcast information is correct at time of issue.


An Open University short course is being planned around the TV programmes. 

More information can be found on the BBC-OU website

Related Courses and programmes from The Open University:-

  • TM190 The Story of Maths

  • MU120 Open Mathematics

  • Y162 Starting with Maths

  • MST121 Using Mathematics
  • MS221 Exploring Maths




Media Contacts

Guy Bailey +(44) 1908 653248

Exclusive interview with ‘The Story of Maths’ presenter, Professor Marcus du Sautoy:

“We tried in these programmes to mirror the intellectual and historical journey of the STORY OF MATHS with a physical journey across the globe. The style I hoped to create was a kind of Michael Palin meets Bronowski, a sort of Around the World in 80 Theorems. We journey from Syria to Egypt, from China to India, from Russia to America in search of where mathematics came from.

  • Why Mathematics? What drew you to your calling?

Mathematics is the language of Nature. Ever since humans have been trying to tame the Nile or chart the course of the night sky it is mathematics that has given civilizations the power to understand the world we live in. The programmes show how simple questions of building led the Egyptians to discover sophisticated formulas for the volumes of pyramids, problems about surveying the land inspired the Babylonians to solve quadratic equations and disputes in the market triggered the Chinese to develop modular arithmetic, the mathematics that is used in codes on the Internet. From these mundane beginnings grew a subject that mirrors the development of civilizations across the globe. 

I was drawn to mathematics because of the power of the language to describe the world around us. As Galileo once wrote: The universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

I was also drawn to mathematics because of its universal nature. It is a language that is spoken across the globe and connects cultures.

  • Do you have to be a certain "sort" of person to understand and apply mathematics? Your website graphic refers to the left and right side of the brain; does this have an effect if one is more dominant than the other?

Some people say that you have to be born with a mathematical brain to get it. I disagree. I think anyone can understand the subject. It is so logical that if you take someone carefully enough along the logical path they will get each step. One of the problems in the way mathematics is taught in school is that you don't understand how or why a piece of mathematics was developed. Where did it come from? My hope is that THE STORY OF MATHS will provide a context for how mathematics came about, how practical problems of building, navigation or commerce inspired the abstract ideas that we learn in school and university. 

  • You travelled to many locations whilst making this programme, what was your favourite and why?

I think I have two favourites. One was Kaliningrad. The film crew hated this grim Russian city with its dilapidated 70s soviet buildings. But for me it is the setting for once of the most exciting and inspiring stories of maths: the seven bridges of Konigsberg. This was a mathematical problem about navigating a path round the bridges of the Prussian city of Konigsberg (today Russian Kaliningrad). The problem inspired a new way of looking at geometry called topology. [See the article for the BBC History Magazine]

My other favourite was a temple in Gwalior in India. This is the site of the oldest zero we have discovered inscribed on a wall. Many people are surprised to discover that zero was invented by Indian mathematicians. It seems strange to think of a time without zero but in Europe the idea of zero and negative numbers was viewed with great suspicion, even into the Renaissance. 

  • Also, which one discovery you make during the filming of the series impressed you the most, and why?

I never realised quite how much mathematics was discovered in India. We journeyed to Kerala to discover a school of mathematics that developed an early form of the calculus several hundred years before Newton and Leibniz in the West. For example, there is a formula for pi that I learnt in university which is named after the German mathematician Leibniz. But it had already been discovered by Madhava several hundred years before. It shows how Euro-centric our view of history is. I hope that programme 2 which describes the discoveries of China, India and central Asia will redress some of these injustices. 

  • Do you have any mathematical heroes? How have they influenced you and why is their work so influential?

Evariste Galois (who figures in programme 4) is a big hero. He died in a duel over love and politics at the age of 20 in Paris. But already by 20 he had completely transformed mathematics, providing a new abstract way to understand solving equations and ultimately leading to a new language to master the fundamental concept of symmetry. His language is the one I use every day as a practising mathematician. 

  • Your presentation style makes you the antithesis of the dusty professor some viewers may associate with such a huge topic as the history of mathematics, What changes would you make in the country at large to change the image and understanding of the science?

Bring alive the stories hiding behind the mathematics. Mathematics is created by people with fascinating lives. Most people don't realise that without these people, mathematics wouldn't exist. Mathematics is a growing, ever evolving subject. We end the series with the fact that there are still many mysteries we don't understand. It is for the next generation to unravel these enigmas. And it is these unsolved problems which make the subject a living subject.”

Series Synopsis

PROGRAMME 1: The Language of the Universe

TX: Monday October 6, BBC FOUR, 9pm

In this opening programme Marcus du Sautoy looks at how fundamental mathematics is to our lives, before exploring the mathematics of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece. In Egypt he uncovers use of a decimal system based on ten fingers of the hand, the Egyptians’ unusual method of multiplication and division, and their understanding of binary numbers, fractions, and solids such as the pyramid.

He discovers that the way we tell the time today is based on the Babylonian base 60 number system – so it is thanks to the Babylonians that we have 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour – and shows how the Babylonians used quadratic equations to measure their land.

In Greece, he looks at the contributions of some of the giants of mathematics including Plato, Euclid, Archimedes, and Pythagoras, who is credited with beginning the transformation of mathematics from a tool for counting into the analytical subject we know today. A controversial figure, Pythagoras’ teachings were considered suspect and his followers seen as a bizarre sect. As well as his ground-breaking work on the properties of right-angled triangles, Pythagoras developed another important theory after observing the properties of musical instruments: he discovered that the intervals between harmonious musical notes are always in whole number ratios to each other.

PROGRAMME 2: The Genius Of The East:

TX: Monday October 13, BBC FOUR, 9pm

When ancient Greece fell into decline, mathematical progress stagnated as Europe fell under the shadow of the Dark Ages. But in the East, mathematics would reach new heights. In the second leg of his journey, Marcus du Sautoy visits China and explores how mathematics helped to build imperial China and was at the heart of such amazing feats of engineering as the Great Wall. Here he discovers the first use of a decimal place number system; the ancient Chinese fascination with patterns in numbers and the development of an early version of Sudoku; and their belief in the mystical powers of numbers, which still exists today. Marcus also learns how mathematics played a role in managing how the Emperor slept his way through the imperial harem to ensure the most favourable succession – and how internet cryptography encodes numbers using a branch of mathematics that has its origins in ancient Chinese work on equations.

In India he discovers how the symbol for the number zero was invented – one of the great landmarks in the development of mathematics. He also examines Indian mathematicians’ understanding of the new concepts of infinity and negative numbers, and their development of trigonometry.

Next, he examines mathematical developments in the Middle East, looking at the invention of the new language of algebra, and the evolution of a solution to cubic equations. This leg of his journey ends in Italy, where he examines the spread of Eastern knowledge to the West through mathematicians such as Leonardo Fibonacci, after whom the Fibonacci Sequence is named.

PROGRAMME 3: The Frontiers of Space

TX: Monday October 20, BBC FOUR, 9pm

By the seventeenth century Europe had taken over from the Middle East as the world’s powerhouse of mathematical ideas. Great strides had been made in understanding the geometry of objects fixed in time and space. The race was now on to discover the mathematics that describes objects in motion.

In this programme, Marcus du Sautoy visits France to look at the work of René Descartes, an outstanding mathematician as well as one of the great philosophers, who realised that it was possible to use algebra to solve problems in geometry. His vital insight – that it was possible for curved lines to be described as equations – would change the course of the discipline forever. Marcus also examines the amazing properties of prime numbers discovered by Pierre de Fermat, whose famous Last Theorem would puzzle mathematicians for more than 350 years. He shows how one of Fermat’s theorems is now the basis for the codes that protect credit card transactions on the internet.

In England he looks at Isaac Newton’s development of the calculus, a great breakthrough which is crucial to understanding the behaviour of moving objects and is used today by every engineer.

He also goes in search of mathematical greats such as Leonhard Euler, the father of topology or ‘bendy geometry’ and Carl Friedrich Gauss, who at the age of 24 was responsible for inventing modular arithmetic (a new way of handling equations). Gauss made major breakthroughs in our understanding of how prime numbers are distributed. This made a crucial contribution to the work of Bernhard Riemann, who developed important theories on prime numbers and had important insights into the properties of objects, which could exist in multi-dimensional space.

PROGRAMME 4: To Infinity and Beyond:

TX: Monday October 27, BBC FOUR, 9pm

In the last programme in the series, Marcus du Sautoy looks at some of the great unsolved problems that confronts mathematics in the 20th century and tells the stories of the mathematicians who would try to crack them.

Mathematicians like Georg Cantor, who investigated a subject that many of the finest mathematical minds had avoided – infinity. Cantor discovered that there were different kinds of infinity – and that some were bigger than others.

Henri Poincaré was trying to solve one mathematical problem when he accidentally stumbled on chaos theory, which has led to a range of ‘smart’ technologies, including machines which control the regularity of heart beats. But in the middle of the twentieth century, mathematics was itself thrown into chaos. Kurt Gödel, an active member of the famous `Vienna Circle’ of philosophers, detonated a ’logic bomb’ under 3000 years of mathematics when he showed that it was impossible for mathematics to prove its own consistency – and that the unknowable is itself an integral part of mathematics.

In this programme, Marcus looks at the startling discoveries of the American mathematician Paul Cohen, who established that there were several different sorts of mathematics in which conflicting answers to the same question were possible. He also examines the work of André Weil and his colleagues, who developed algebraic geometry, a field of study which helped to solve many of mathematics toughest equations, including Fermat’s Last Theorem and reflects on the contributions of Alexander Grothendieck, whose ideas have had a major influence on current mathematical thinking about the hidden structures underpinning all mathematics.

Marcus concludes his journey by considering the great unsolved problems of mathematics today, including the Riemann Hypothesis - a conjecture about the distribution of prime numbers – which are the atoms of the mathematical universe. There is now $1 million prize and a place in the history books for anyone who can prove Riemann’s theory.

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