The Story of Maths - The Language of the Universe

Updated Tuesday 12th July 2011

Marcus du Sautoy shows how numbers underpin the universe.

Egyptian hieroglyphics Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU 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. Legend has it that one of his followers, Hippasus, was drowned when he announced his discovery of irrational numbers - a discovery that upset those who had held faith with the Pythagorean world view.

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.

First broadcast: Monday 13 Oct 2008 on BBC FOUR; the programme can be seen again on Tuesday 12th July at 8.00pm. Further broadcast information and iPlayers links can be found on bbc.co.uk

Find out more

The Story of Maths in more depth:

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

The Story of Maths -  To Infinity and Beyond Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Story of Maths - To Infinity and Beyond

Unsolved problems - and the search for solutions - will take maths to infinity and beyond. Marcus du Sautoy explains how.

Article
Using visualisation in maths teaching Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Education & Development 

Using visualisation in maths teaching

This free course, Using visualisation in maths teaching, looks at visualisation as it relates to mathematics, focusing on how it can be used to improve learning. It will also identify ways in which to make more use of visualisation within the classroom.

Free course
6 hrs
Maths everywhere Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Maths everywhere

This free course, Maths everywhere, explores reasons for studying mathematics, practical applications of mathematical ideas and aims to help you to recognise mathematics when you come across it. It introduces the you to the graphics calculator, and takes you through a series of exercises from the Calculator Book, Tapping into Mathematics With the TI-83 Graphics Calculator. The course ends by asking you to reflect on the process of studying mathematics. In order to complete this free course you will need to have obtained a Texas Instruments TI-83 calculator and the book Tapping into Mathematics With the TI-83 Graphics Calculator (ISBN 0201175479).

Free course
8 hrs
Experiences of learning mathematics Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Experiences of learning mathematics

This free course, Experiences of learning mathematics, is aimed at teachers who wish to review how they go about the practice of teaching maths, those who are considering becoming maths teachers, or those who are studying maths courses and would like to understand more about the teaching process.

Free course
16 hrs
Additional efforts: Why we need to be better at maths Creative commons image Icon Sami under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license article icon

Education & Development 

Additional efforts: Why we need to be better at maths

We need to be better at maths - and the suggestion that only smart people can be good with numbers is holding a lot of us back.

Article
OU on the BBC: The Story of Maths - About the series Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: The Story of Maths - About the series

Marcus DuSautoy takes a journey through the heart of the universe - find out more about the series.

Article

Science, Maths & Technology 

Maths as others see it

Visiting a hospital you'd expect to find doctors and nurses, but what about mathematicians? This album illustrates how mathematics is used throughout the Whittington Hospital in London, as well as in every day life. This material forms part of the course MU120 Open mathematics.

Audio
15 mins

Science, Maths & Technology 

Starting with Maths

How many times have you used mathematics today? Starting with Maths takes a detailed look into the history behind numbers and how mathematics has evolved into something we use in everyday life. We hear the experiences of people who rely heavily on accurate calculations for the success of their jobs. In addition to this we look into the lives of 12 OU students as they explain how studying makes them feel ‘on top of the world’. This material forms part of the course: Y162 Starting with maths.

Audio
1 hr

Science, Maths & Technology 

Exploring mathematics: maths in nature and art

What does mathematics have to do with nature or art? The video tracks in this album trace the origin of the mathematics of chaos and describe how the chance discovery of fractals became the basis for some real - and revolutionary - commercial applications such as the fax and the modem. A closer look at ancient fabric designs and the spiral of a nautilus shell also reveals repeating patterns that can be analysed in a mathematical way. This material forms part of The Open University course MS221 Exploring mathematics.

Audio
1 hr