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The Code: Revealing the secret

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Marcus du Sautoy Marcus du Sautoy | 11:15 UK time, Wednesday, 27 July 2011

When I was 12 my maths teacher took me aside after one lesson and let me into a secret that changed my life forever.

Mathematics, it turned out, was more than just the long division we were practicing in the classroom.

He started to tell me fantastic stories that were written in the language of mathematics.

Marcus du Sautoy - The Code

He revealed to me a hidden code that explained why the world looks and behaves the way it does.

But not only that. By tapping into Nature's code he explained how we have been able to change our surroundings, build extraordinary cities and develop amazing technology that has resulted in the modern world we currently live in today.

Mathematics, he told me, is the code that makes sense of our universe.

In my new series for BBC Two called The Code, I hope to let everyone in on that secret code of mathematics that my teacher shared with me behind the back of the maths block.

The Code changed the way I see the world and I hope this series will let you see things through the eyes of a mathematician.

We travel to Pixar animation to reveal how the film-makers are using mathematics of fractal geometry to create the virtual worlds of films like Up and Cars.

We interview an ex-FBI agent who uses mathematical equations to locate serial killers.

We witness a plague of cicadas in Alabama which only happens every 13 years, a prime number which the cicadas cleverly used to avoid other species in the forest.

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Marcus du Sautoy learns about the periodical cicada

And we discovered how the mathematics of pattern searching helps you to become the rock paper scissors world champion.

Hopefully after you've watched The Code you'll never look at mathematics or the world in the same way again.

But what makes this series so unique is that it is more than just a television programme.

Running alongside the programmes is an exciting mathematical treasure hunt full of engaging puzzles, addictive online games and clever conundrums that will take you on an exciting mathematical journey of discovery.

Called the Code Challenge it is an experience that combines the intrigue of solving a murder mystery with the addictive playfulness of Angry Birds.

For me, mathematics is not a spectator sport. The best way to appreciate and get excited by the power of this extraordinary subject is by immersing yourself actively in its world.

The Code Challenge is a fantastic way to play and explore the mathematical language of the universe.

And not only is it fun to play but there is a unique and valuable prize awaiting one talented player.

So join me on my journey and let me reveal to you what mathematics is really about.

Marcus du Sautoy is a professor of mathematics and the presenter of The Code.

The Code is on BBC Two and BBC HD on Wednesday, 27 July at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

For episode guides from Marcus du Sautoy and clues to The Code Challenge, please visit The Code blog.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    Well...what a disappointment! A lot of fluff, repetition and grandstanding. I found this program patronizing and superficial. No real science or insight, a lot of moody images, and frankly...boring! What has happened to BBC's science programming? This program was overly hyped up, and delivered nothing substantial. And as for the assumption that early builders only "stumbled" on the significance of the numerical design on human consciousness, and did not know what they were doing, shows a level of intellectual arrogance, that devalued the professors standing IMO!

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree. A very superficial programme. Also, there was at least one factual error, when Prof. du Sautoy stated that no matter how big a circle you draw, the circumference divided by the radius equals pi. This is only true if the circle is drawn and measured in a plane. A huge circle drawn on the surface of earth, and measured on the surface, will have a ratio of less than pi.

  • Comment number 3.

    Agree totally, very disappointing. Who is the target audience? Children? If so surely it would be better before 9pm. Adults? If so then it really has to grow up and drop the drivel.

  • Comment number 4.

    Dear Sir,

    The Code – BBC2, 27 July 2011

    I found the programme "The Code" very interesting. I wish to offer two comments as follows:

    1. Pi:

    Pi (π) is known as a transcendental irrational number and, in theory, it does not have a definite and singular value. In practice, however, a value of 3.1416 is generally accepted. A value of Pi (π) is obtained by approximating the circle as a polygon with straight-line sides, a process that does not really accord with the purist principles of mathematics. If one uses a triangle, value of π will be 2.598. The value will increase to 2.828, 3.000, 3.061 and 3.131 for approximation of a circle with polygons with 4, 6, 8 and 20 sides. The increase will get smaller and smaller, and will virtually flatten off after, say, a 20-sided polygon. A value of 3.14 will be reached with a polygon with 56 sides and. a 120-sided polygon will give π as 3.1412.

    2. Negative numbers

    Arithmetical multiplication of numbers is a repetitive addition. However, application of a sign to the number changes the process into a statement, requiring association of meaning to a sign - plus (+) meaning forward or in credit or better-off and minus (-) meaning backward or in debit or worse-off.

    For example, (-3)x(+2) means asking for the result of "giving away (-)" £3.00 every day after two days in the future (+). Here, the sum of £3.00 has a negative sign and the period of two days in future has a plus sign. The answer (-6) means that one would be £6.00 "worse-off (-)" in two days time. Similarly, with the rate of giving away three pounds per day (-3),one would have been £6.00 better-off (+6) two days ago (-2).

    Yours faithfully,

    Dr Satish Desai
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 5.

    so disappointed, as mentioned it was all surface and failed to illuminate and connect the information and seemed to have items discussed at random. Thanks goodness jams burke's connections are all up on youtube to remind us how to do these kind of programmes. BBC drama has recently improved, hopefully science will as well

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    I cannot describe how incredibly disappointed I am at this stupid show. Do the programme makers think we are all STUPID? Every time he referred to "The Code" made me sick. Rubbish. Yes, numbers & mathematics are everywhere, but to "jazz" it up for stupid people by giving it the Dan Brown treatment is utter rubbish. How hard is it to tell people about the square root of minus one? No, it has be kept as a question mark on the paper so stupid people who can't understand what having -1 fish is about don't get confused. This programme is totally off the mark. Why not just tell people what i is? And HOW exactly is it used in air traffic control???? What an unbelievably disappointing programme. Shocking. No wonder we are going down the educashon league tables. Total failure. Grade: F-.

  • Comment number 8.

    Also disappointed by it. Was maybe enough substance in there for a 30-minute programme.
    Was the title "The Code" chosen to attract more viewers? He kept throwing in the word at irrelevant points in the narration.
    Would've been interested to find out precisely how imaginary numbers are used in radar.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Also very disappointed by this program.

  • Comment number 11.

    Why oh why was this on after the 9pm watershed?

    A shortened version (less repetition and fewer gaps filled with irrelevant arty footage) would have been perfect tea-time viewing for my class of year 6's. They adored M-de-S's previous program on 'infinity'.

    I'm not sure who this program was aimed at it was just full of trite waffle. Marcus you can do better - you have done better! And the BBC should be ashamed of themselves. I'll never watch another Brian Cox programme and at this rate i'll never watch another one from Marcus!

  • Comment number 12.

    I take it you are all professional mathematicians.

    Frankly, as a chemist and statistician (which means that I can do some maths, but the only analysis I can manage is in a laboratory), I found it interesting and, in part, amusing. It was, to me, a little light relief.

    My wife, who claims not to have any mathematical ability nor interest (fine art is her hobby), was intrigued and watched it through. It probably taught her more maths than all of the previous correspondants together could manage in a month of Sundays.

    Sure, for mathematical/scientific professionals, it was fairly light - though I would say it has plenty of interest even though it's not cutting edge. For most of the public, or at least those with an average or above IQ, it was probably ground they've never trod before.

    Please do not be so disparaging.

  • Comment number 13.

    Did anyone notice the mistake in obtaining the numbers 14,15,16 & 18 by prime number incorrect formulae? I hope this chap has nothing to do with the Hadron Collider, LOL.
    The programme has far too much padding as mentioned by stuffedolive1.

  • Comment number 14.

    Dear Whitesmar,

    I am in no way a professional mathematician. I am, however, certain that even though I only possess an A level in the subject, I could teach your wife more maths in a weekend, let alone a month of Sundays, than was covered in the programme, and with my O level in English Language I feel confident I could teach you how to spell correspondants (sic) as a bonus.
    People are commenting on the programme as they saw it, you should not disparage their (and my) comments, merely add your own view or critique.

  • Comment number 15.

    I am afraid this has gone the way of too many 'science' programmes - too 'art-farty'! However, once you strip all that away and see the substance there: it's good. I would have liked to have seen more of an explanation of imaginary numbers and their uses in radar and other fields but Mrs Mac thought the programme went just deep enough to whet the appetite without going overboard.

  • Comment number 16.

    I agree with the critical comments: Marcus de Sautoy has now effectively declared himself to be the Professor for the public *mis*understanding of science. By pandering to the readership of Dan Brown, he has chosen to avoid using the accepted terminology of "mathematics" or "number theory" and has now created a new pseudo-mystical wrapping which will wrong-foot the very public he pretends to educate. Instead of making the latter subjects more intriguing and attractive, by using the misguided term of "The Code", I am afraid he has now created unwisely an ill-conceived mystique around those serious and beautiful subjects which would not go down too badly in an audience of creationists and believers in intelligent design -- quite a feat for the successor of Dawkins! I fear for the generation of youngsters who will now come knocking at the doors of academia, wanting to follow modules not on core topics but demanding to learn about this secret and empowering "Code" which is deemde to explain everything including the essence of the Universe. I fear for the ill-informed politicians who will now allow the Research Councils to support the investigation of "The Code" and its relevance for society, rather than supporting serious research in the mathematical sciences.

  • Comment number 17.

    I think some reviewers are being unfair. In a Country which is now largely completely innumerate thanks to thirty plus years of educational failure, something trying to build up on maths should be welcomed. While I felt that the programme had only half an hour's real content, compare that with the five minutes' real content of the truly facile "Richard Hammond's Votyage to the Bottom of the Sea" which started this same week with much more of a fanfare.

    Marcus Du Sautoy came across as a very engaging and human presenter, and I for one will be giving this worthy attempt at an educational series some more attention.

  • Comment number 18.

    In the interest of scientific accuracy, regarding the calculations for determining the life cycle of Cicada, in Alabama. Was the calender used for the calculation the Lunar one or our normal solar based one? Clearly it has to be the lunar one as the solar one is man modified and cannot be used to accurately calculate biological phenomenon.

  • Comment number 19.

    Irritating, superficial, patronising - a perfect example on how NOT get people interested in numbers. And to cap it all, a stupid childish attempt to attract viewers with a "hunt the code" game. Come on, BBC, get rid of the silly clever TV and lighting shots and give the subject the serious treatment the topic deserves!

  • Comment number 20.

    I agree with general sense of disappointment - I think the program could have been distilled down to about 15 miinutes.

    I was interested though, in the segment that discussed the numerical relatioships of different musical intervals, and it led me to thinking about a question, that maybe one of the blog readers can answer for me.

    What I wondered was "If our seconds were longer of shorter than they are today - they are after all a historically arbitrary division of an average day length - would the frequency ratios still have the same nice today fractions that we have today. Say they'd decided to have 80 or 50 seconds in a minute, you'd get more, or less, cycles in one of those seconds, so would a fifth actually be a 0.19 or a 0.21?" Can anyone help with this?

  • Comment number 21.

    If you think this program 'dumbs down' (which it does) try watching 'Wonderstuff' BBC 2 Mondays 7.30. It make this program seem almost intellectual!

  • Comment number 22.

    I was a bit of a maths nerd at school, and found secondary maths a bit boring so I used to pass time learning useless things like: the speed of light in all possible metrics or pi to 100 decimal places.

    My point is, as I watched this program, which I have to agree with a previous commenter, was dramatized with full Dan Brown effect, and I am surprised did not discuss Alan Turings work on patterns in nature when discussing 'hidden' codes in nature, I think I noticed that there is a mistake at the 41st decimal place of PI: and yes I do have friends and get out a lot!!

    If somebody recorded the program perhaps they can check this for me...

    Whereas, I feel, Brian Cox has really brought Physics and Astronomy to the masses, I am worried that this program risks dumbing down Marcus Du Sautoys reputation.

  • Comment number 23.

    Some of the scathing comments in this thread suggest that many have missed the point of the series.

    I was not overly enthused by the 1st episode but found the 2nd one today more revealing of the intent - to play some part in inspiring thought and discovery, and hopefully lead, to an Einstein amongst our midst. History has proven that a genius often gets discovered when posing simple questions like "How" and "Why" to themselves. There is enough in this series to provoke that in some minds, somewhere. For the rest, it will be just entertainment to ingest, digest and discard.

    As for Pope Gregory's F- to the Professor, he illustrates the dumbing down of education so well in his comment. "Those in glass houses..."

  • Comment number 24.

    highly disapointed with the series so far. It seems so far that it could have been all put into 3 half hour programmes, due to all the time waisting repeats of what had just been said in the last section of the programme. Its a shame as it would have been good but trying to turn it into what delphi393 says "dramatized with full Dan Brown effect" let it down

  • Comment number 25.

    Dan Brown? Who's talking about Dan Brown?

    I am slightly confused about the number of people posting negative comments about this programme. Both my sister and I (19 and 17 respectively, both with a keen interest in maths) found it very enjoyable. Aside (perhaps) from the slow-moving nature of the programme and endless repetition of the words "the code".

    Though, from the trailers, what did you expect?

  • Comment number 26.

    I agree with Clara. Don't usually blog but found criticisms and intellectual snobbery about this programme very annoying.
    Like many others I hated maths at school, only got O level after 3 attempts and private tuition. I've found The Code fascinating. I never knew about fractals, now I do and I'm keen to know more. Surely that's the point of the programme.
    Most of you critics seem to know it all already in which case why bother watching?

  • Comment number 27.

    I thought it was ok, the question arising for me was perhaps this could tell us more about the universe, for example, if there are more than one universe perhaps the shape of ours will prove to be honeycombed rather than round. If we could find out the shape of our universe perhaps it could indicate if ours is on its own or is it surrounded by many others. If the universe proves to be honeycombed shaped then it wouldn't be round because it would be like those bubbles. However, if it is round perhaps it could mean that ours is the only one. Just a thought.

  • Comment number 28.

    Have to agree with the comment on dumbing down in this programme. This week's show never really got to the real reasons why, say, bees make honeycombs like they do. It's not because bees are, like, tuned into some secret cosmic knowledge, dude, which almost seemed to be what was implied at one point. All the phenomena talked about can be explained by good old fashioned chemical and physical principles and laws of thermodynamics. The programme could still have been as engaging as it was but should have done much more to explain the reasons behind the natural world appearing as it does.

  • Comment number 29.

    I've changed my mind, I think it's quite good. The fractals did it for me:- I can see where this is going.
    My focus is still on 'wonderstuff' in terms of dumbing down, with the 'bimbo' presenter last week coming out with the immortal words " and it may even be a cure for canswer"
    Give me strength!

  • Comment number 30.

    Programme 1 was frustrating -- I would have liked to ask the following questions:
    1. What happens when the cicadas do coincide? They still manage to survive despite the fact that they meet twice a century. As they are not used to competition one could imagine their meeting it so occasionally might be disastrous.
    2. OK so pi crops up in many other areas besides geometry. However no attempt whatever is made to explain how it fits in to predicting the weight of the largest fish, for example. Do I take it no one has the faintest idea? Or is it just too difficult for the lay person to understand?
    3. Likewise we have to take it on trust that imaginary numbers are used in radar and no attempt is made to explain how this works.
    Indded, De Sautoy expects us to take so much on trust that I begin to wonder why he does not reconsider his atheism and at least allow for the possibility that the mystery is best explained by the existence of a supreme intelligence.

  • Comment number 31.

    The US guy that was brought in to predict the probable post code of a serial killer had an interesting model, made up of an element based on distance (or time? of travel) and a buffer zone part. After several observations (murders), some areas were more likely than others. Presumably the art is in estimating this from as few observations as possible. What we also need (this week) is the ability to model disorderly group behaviour - predicting when a "tipping point" (or riot in media terms) might occur. Presumably the buffer zone cancels out with lots of group members rather than one, though other stablising factors such as the number of police available to respond would also need to be included. Using an average to determine public service numbers may mean that you can't cope when things get chaotic. A successful model might suggest different tactics by the public services to deal with any troubles. All I know is the maths is way beyond me!

  • Comment number 32.

    Can Marcus please explain the derivation of the Lemmings equation? I have watched it again and there seems to be some slight-of-hand going on.
    Certainly the simple iterative formula for population could be Pn = R x P. But how on earth is the non-survival term R x P x P (which equals Pn x P)? Why should I multiply the previous population by the next population to get the number who die??

  • Comment number 33.

    I too would like to have more explanation about the Lemming equation Pn = RxP(1-P). It seems to me that adjustment in the calculation for the number who die is going to be far too large R x P x P ?? I don’t understand how this equation can ever produce a positive number for the next population because if P is > 1 then the answer is always going to be negative and not produce the sort of results Marcus gave . . .
    I’m confused! Thanks!

  • Comment number 34.

    The program got better after a really shaky start (hard not too). However I would like to take issue with the Jelly Bean test. It was remarkable how close the average guess was to the actual count until you realise that one guess (the ridiculous 50,000 one) contributed over 300 beans to the average; without this the average would have been way off. Granted 160 guesses is not that significant a sample but it make you wonder how true it all was.

    p.s. How does "The Code" fit in with Quantum Physics???

  • Comment number 35.

    Amazing! Of all the "Brains Of Britain" (the early posts), not one paid enough attention to the programme to notice the simple arithmetic mistakes when multiplying prime numbers. We know that 2(2*3) = 12; it also, apparently = 14, 15, 16 and 18. Since when did 2*2*2*3 = 26? Try 2*13. Well done BBRINKW for paying attention in class!

  • Comment number 36.

    I too agree with Mary (post 33) and the leming equation. With a p squared as a deduction the result is always going to be negative. Marcus, please clarify....

  • Comment number 37.

    Extremely, extremely disappointed with this lame show!!

    A grade-school-level exposition of basic concepts for those who failed all of their fifth grade math??

    As they say on the internet, 'do not want'.

    Please stop this degeneracy. What the world doesn't need is more anti-intellectualism.

  • Comment number 38.

    I thought episode 1 was awful but 2 and 3 were much better and deserve some praise.

    I did think there was too much dressing everything up in mystery - the presenter silently posing in stormy landscapes and cathedrals, the flashbacks. As Kyaume says in comment #16, his very idea of "the Code" is likely to mislead all sorts of people. Why not just call the series something like "Maths in Unlikely Places"?

    There was much more of interest in the shapes and prediction episodes. But beware - yes a computer following three simple rules can produce something which *looks* like a flock of starlings; yes parts of the Mandelbrot set *look* like ferns. Cardioids look like arses! Does that necessarily mean nature is following any preset formulas, that there is a "Code"??

  • Comment number 39.

    I think that if the people criticising Marcus du Sautoy's programme stood back and reamembered that the UK is so mathematically ignorant that there are people who still think Gordon Brown was a competent Chancellor, and therefore presumably unable to count to ten without moving their lips or needing fingers, they would at least give some credit for effort.

    There were many things to relish in this series, and while as one who uses calculus not infrequently, I'd have liked to see more hard maths there, there were a number of elements of considerable interest, despite the padding.

    The real fault comes from the title- by calling it "The Code", it seems to mark it as inaccessible to the masses, as if it's only a glimpse through an open door to a secret world of those who do the maths for us, to tell us it's all OK. A lot of scientists fall into that mode; Richard Dawkins for example, who tells us it's all known and clear, but don't open the door enough to allow interrogation of the tricky bits.

    I am sure, however, that this was not du Sautoy's intent- he comes across as warm and engaging, and hopefully will try again.

    Even so, as far as documentaries are concerned, a highlight in an otherwise rather barren year, where the BBC's prize jewel is often held up as the completely infantile Top Gear.

  • Comment number 40.

    Add your commentFor all those interested in the lemmings equation:

    I think Marcus du Sautoy was referring to the (discrete) Logistics Map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logistic_map, but he should have explained that P is not the population (in his equation), but P = population/carrying capacity, so P is between 0 and 1, inclusive, a sort of normalised population. Also, R is his equation is the growth rate that "does take into account the previous generation", i.e. if there are 100 lemmings and 5 new ones are born, R = 105/100, and not R = 5/100 (as one might think). This should have been explained as well. Otherwise, yes, the lemmings equation seems to be an ok way of modelling the lemmings populations, although it's just a model with many flaws as well (good, not perfect). The chaos comes from the fact that R might vary by very, very small amounts, but those tiny variations can cause wildly differing behaviour. It's not unpredictable if we know R, but what if we don't know R? The tiniest change / uncertainty in the value of R for lemmings for example, might lead to completely different populations / our predictions of the population.

    More info here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/%7Ejmahaffy/courses/s00/math121/lectures/logistic_growth/logistic.html
    And here: http://www.indiana.edu/%7Ehalllab/L577/Topic2/Case2000_Chap5.pdf

    Overall, I think Marcus du Sautoy should be more "down-to-Earth" with maths, which is a wonderful subject, and not ruin it with mysticism ("the Code") , even if it might make some people pay attention to it. Yes, maths is cool and people should be told about it and shown how it can be interesting and exciting, but it's nothing voodoo/religious/mystical about it, anybody can do it, it makes sense (most of the time :-P), it's rational, positive and real (No, irrational, negative or imaginary numbers don't disprove my point!)

    Also: he should be more clear when he is communicating maths, so that people like me and some other people puzzled about lemmings and the logistics map can follow him and can check that his equations actually make sense/work (without spending 30min on Google trying to figure it out). Suggestion: he should have called it the the logistics map, which is well known and studied (many things unknown about it: yes, "mystical"/"mysterious": no), and he should have explained what the terms are and what they mean (more clearly than what he did). Wouldn't have taken too long!

    Source: I have a degree in maths

  • Comment number 41.

    I quite enjoyed segments of the show - too many self-satisfied clever clogs commenting here from a position of assumed superiority. Perhaps a degree of envy that a mathematician is on TV?

    OK, so he rattled on a bit about 'the code' but I think he was referring to the mathematical principles we can now see in what were once thought of as random (as opposed to chaotic) phenomena. The bit on Jackson Pollock was inspired.

    Some commenters need to lighten up a bit.

  • Comment number 42.

    I say some pretty batty or unintelligible things online myself, and i think the written word can sometimes give quite a distorted view of the person behind them for some reason, but it does seem to me to be the case that some of the comments posted here are somewhat independent of the programme's actual content (or Reason). Presumably there are genre constraints and considered objectives for such a show, eg relaxation and entertainment, and target audiences eg curious amateurs, children and off duty scientists as the target audience. There is clearly a vast amount of studying and thinking that goes on before someone reaches a deep understanding, so of course unless a viewer has already been through a similar process themselves and reached similar conclusions, they may well be suspicious of the meaning or validity of a precis expression like 'The Code'. Maybe it is the case that there is only an objective reality if and only if the reality is viewed through 'maths'; i would not be so quick to dismiss these big brains. A pure maths researcher I know gave me the impression that she believes the mathematics of mathematicians like Alain Connes for example is impressive stuff.

  • Comment number 43.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 44.

    Re. Honey bees and honeycomb hexagonals. On BBC Countryfile Sunday 25 th Sept. there was a demonstration of Charles Darwins experiment showing that bees do not build hexagonals, they actually build round cells. Nature then takes over and moves them into hexagonals a'la The Giants Causway. You can view this again on IPlayer, about 29 min. into the video. Great programmes Marcus keep them comming.


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