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The Story of Maths - The Genius of the East

Updated Monday 26th March 2012

When ancient Greece fell into decline, mathematical progress became the preserve of the genius of the East.

Marcus by Great Wall of China Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

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 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 invention 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, creator of the Fibonacci Sequence.

First broadcast: Monday 13 Oct 2008 on BBC FOUR


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