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Weirder and Weirder

   2018    Science
Dr Hannah Fry explores a paradox at the heart of modern maths, discovered by Bertrand Russell, which undermines the very foundations of logic that all of maths is built on. These flaws suggest that maths isn't a true part of the universe but might just be a human language - fallible and imprecise. However, Hannah argues that Einstein's theoretical equations, such as E=mc2 and his theory of general relativity, are so good at predicting the universe that they must be reflecting some basic structure in it. This idea is supported by Kurt Godel, who proved that there are parts of maths that we have to take on faith.
Hannah then explores what maths can reveal about the fundamental building blocks of the universe - the subatomic, quantum world. The maths tells us that particles can exist in two states at once, and yet quantum physics is at the core of photosynthesis and therefore fundamental to most of life on earth - more evidence of discovering mathematical rules in nature. But if we accept that maths is part of the structure of the universe, there are two main problems: firstly, the two main theories that predict and describe the universe - quantum physics and general relativity - are actually incompatible; and secondly, most of the maths behind them suggests the likelihood of something even stranger - multiple universes.
We may just have to accept that the world really is weirder than we thought, and Hannah concludes that while we have invented the language of maths, the structure behind it all is something we discover. And beyond that, it is the debate about the origins of maths that has had the most profound consequences: it has truly transformed the human experience, giving us powerful new number systems and an understanding that now underpins the modern world.
Series: Magic Numbers

Words on a Page

   2020    History
Writing itself is 5,000 years old, and for most of that time words were written by hand using a variety of tools. The Romans were able to run an empire thanks to documents written on papyrus. Scroll books could be made quite cheaply and, as a result, ancient Rome had a thriving written culture. With the fall of the Roman Empire, papyrus became more difficult to obtain. Europeans were forced to turn to a much more expensive surface on which to write: Parchment. Medieval handwritten books could cost as much as a house, they also represent a limitation on literacy and scholarship.
No such limitations were felt in China, where paper had been invented in the second century. Paper was the foundation of Chinese culture and power, and for centuries how to make it was kept secret. When the secret was out, paper mills soon sprang up across central Asia. The result was an intellectual flourishing known as the Islamic Golden Age. Muslim scholars made discoveries in biology, geology, astronomy and mathematics. By contrast, Europe was an intellectual backwater.
That changed with Gutenberg’s development of movable type printing. The letters of the Latin alphabet have very simple block-like shapes, which made it relatively simple to turn them into type pieces. When printers tried to use movable type to print Arabic texts, they found themselves hampered by the cursive nature of Arabic writing. The success of movable type printing in Europe led to a thousand-fold increase in the availability of information, which produced an explosion of ideas that led directly to the European Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution that followed.
Series: The Secret History of Writing

The Secret History of Writing
The Secret History of Writing

   2020    History
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

   2014    Science
The Last Dance
The Last Dance

   2020    Culture
The Private Life of Plants
The Private Life of Plants

   1994    Nature
Putin: A Russian Spy Story
Putin: A Russian Spy Story

   2020    History
Vegan
Vegan

   2019    Culture
The Nazis, A Warning From History
The Nazis, A Warning From History

   1997    History