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Marcus du Sautoy Marcus du Sautoy | 16:23 UK time, Tuesday, 26 July 2011

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Tonight's programme is called Magic Numbers, in which we begin our journey to reveal the hidden code of the mathematics that underpins everything, from the way snails grow to the trajectories of the planets. We discover how it's only by turning nature into numbers that we can uncover the patterns that lie hidden behind the apparent chaos that surrounds us. And remember that while watching the programme you too are looking for hidden clues to help you crack the Code Challenge that we’re running alongside the series.

I was particularly excited to film this episode as I got the chance to meet two of my mathematical heroes of the animal world for the first time: the magicicada and the nautilus.

The magicicada is an extraordinary species of cicada that uses my favourite numbers in mathematics, the primes, for its evolutionary survival. To find them we travelled to Nashville Tennessee, home usually to the sound of blue grass and honky tonk. But every 13 years the banjos and basses get drowned out by the chorus of an insect that has fascinated me ever since I became a mathematician. It might seem strange for a mathematician to be interested in bugs but these cicadas are rather special. Only found in the eastern states of north America the cicadas exploit mathematics to help them to survive. They appear periodically but only emerge after a prime number of years. In the case of the brood appearing around Nashville: every 13 years.

I've read about their story, seen their pictures, watched videos of them emerging from the ground. But this year was the first time I've been lucky enough to see them for real. Maybe the fact that 2011 is prime number year was a good omen.

As part of the Code Challenge you will also need to master your primes to survive, not in the forest around Nashville, but in the kitchen of Chef Mersenne in our addictive game Prima Pizzeria. Make it to a certain point and you’ll get an important clue to help you crack the Code Challenge. And remember to keep on sending us pictures of prime numbers in the environment. We’re hoping to get all the primes up to 2011. You can also email pictures to code@bbc.co.uk.

After Nashville it was back up to Brooklyn to come face to face with one of the icons of the mathematical world: the nautilus. The shell of the nautilus is such a thing of beauty that it has become the poster boy for the world of mathematics. But it’s only by turning the dimensions of the shell into numbers that we can reveal the secret to how it grows. Although I’ve seen countless images of the shell, my trip to Brooklyn was the first time I’d seen the animal that actually lives inside the shell. A strange ancient octopus that looked like one of the ood from Doctor Who.

The Code mascot - Fibunnacci - capured by Marcus.

The Code mascot - Fibunnacci - capured by Marcus.

Although he didn’t make the cut there is another animal that deserves a mention. We adopted a very friendly rabbit as The Code mascot who kept us company while filming a very cold sequence at the Sunkenkirk stone circle in Cumbria about the number pi hidden inside all circles. We named him appropriately enough Fibunnacci.

Enjoy the first programme and best of luck with the treasure hunt!


  • Comment number 1.

    The programme appeared to describe not just a code based on numbers but, more specifically, DECIMAL numbers - or does the code also work with other numbering systems? We live in a decimal universe?

  • Comment number 2.

    its all about interpretation..language helps us visualise thoughts and ideas..the decimal system facilitates the visualisation of these ideas...there have been many systems of calculating over the millennia...the decimal system is the one most widely used today so it could have been almost and of the numbering systems of the past had they survived the test of evolution

  • Comment number 3.

    Oh dear.
    Marcus du Sautoy's first programme in the series "The Code" has tarnished his reputation.
    Firstly, the production team, by repeatedly stressing "The Code", has allowed obscurantist occultism to occur. Mathematics in general and numbers in particular are NOT a code. They can be used in codes but they are not of themselves codes. I just hope programmes 2 and 3 have not also given in to a version of Dan Brown popularism.
    In common with many mathematicians Prof. du Sautoy has allowed the programme makers to air ontological claims about numbers that don't stand up to scrutiny. Whilst mathematics provides powerful descriptions of the world about us it should not be confused with the world about us.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hello, it was a great pleasure to see my favourite stone circle on TV but did you know many stone circles are not round, but complex ellipses - I wonder how many stone circle anoraks have emailed to point out this out. :)

    Engineering Professor Alexander Thom accurately measured and proposed a classification of hundreds of stone circles into seven different types of circles, near circles and ellipses. (He's better known for the controversial theory of the Megalithic Yard but we don't need to go into that here).

    However Sunkenkirk is one of the stone circles that is a true circle. So well done for choosing one that works. Or I wonder if perhaps you tried your experiment at another better known circle such as Castlerigg first and found that it wasn't round!

    Best Wishes from the Megalithic Portal

  • Comment number 5.

    The content was broken by not giving details of the math, well only through what I would see as a subliminal use of numbers that were not connected properly to the images and ideas given. They appeared in 384,000 fishes, 192 and the Nautilus spiral with a growth of 1.08, so maybe the problem is that Macus is fully aware of copyrights already existing on the math, but if so then why not ask to use them as for my part I wouldn't have had a problem with this. He could then have explained the inherent patterns in integers (in their contracted and expanded runs) and fraction that relate to all things including the movement of the Heaven and dimension's of the Earth. But that said his comments and program content have drawn people's attention to the fact all is governed by the program of math that is universally the law of physics - all is determined by a firm, simple and unbreakable set of numbers. These math appear throughout our history as Sacred Numbers but they firstly appear in the oldest known txts to mankind, and a puzzle remains as to how at some time in the past our own ancestors knew this math and passed it down as a simple integer to binary images contained in Map's of directions on how to fit numbers and images together. This correctly reveals the working's of Time and the measure of the mean (Average Numbers), all contained in a symbolism connected to animal behaviour, and objects in order to tell a narrative of Creation. Knowing of this is not a religion or a belief system connected to any side of the coin, it's a working math lost and misunderstood in the passing down through the ages only to be again found in modern physics. Let hope he gives more detail in further programs.

  • Comment number 6.

    Can someone tell me if the formula used to predict the maximum size of the dover sole has a name? I'd like to find out a bit more about it.

    kind regards.

  • Comment number 7.

    Nothing new here except the labelling of this knowledge as The Code. Mathemetics helps us understand and predict nature and the universe. Natural phenomena are not doing any calculating, just behaving. The application of "i" was too quickly abandoned as was the approach to "e" which disapperared. As for the flaming projectile, only MdS said it was accelerating upwards. It was accelerating downwards the moment it left the sling. This programme is playing loose with the facts in pursuit of The Code which is an invention. Are we labouring towards to exp(i.pi) = -1? Dumbed down and disappointing so far. erc.

  • Comment number 8.

    Generally surrounded by too much numerology-esque mysticism. I do hope however that this spurs some people on to study mathematics independently.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nothing of any substance here, very disappointing. What about "e" the golden ratio in relation to the Fibonicci sequence etc?

  • Comment number 10.

    Overall, I found the first episode quite interesting but there were a couple of points which I found irritating (1) the rather misleading idea that everything in the natural world be calculated by ‘The Code’, a rather abstract concept which somehow manages to encompass all of the various disciplines of mathematics. That’s a bit like saying that the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything is 42, (2) Marcus du Sautoy intrigued us with the concept of imaginary numbers and went on the cite radar (in an air traffic control scenario) as one of its practical applications but then gave us absolutely no explanation of how it actually works. Disappointing.

  • Comment number 11.

    I think some of the comments made here forget that its not meant to be and Oxford lecture that gets in to the nitty gritty of the mathematical formulas, but instead within the bbc's remit of educating those who have a general knowledge and particular interest in this subject - and therefore totally appropriate. I watched this from an art students point of view as study for my dissertation (on pattern and variation in nature and art) and it was a very helpful starting point for my research.

  • Comment number 12.

    I am not an academic but I do admire numbers (often dreaming of discovering an all important simple formula that no one thought of before). The show does seem a little rushed & vague but bbc have already made numerous documentaries on mathematics. I guess they see this as a bit of fun for everyone mildly or wildly interested (with booty to boot). You can't cram a lifes time of studying into a couple of episodes!

    I think I've got the first password. I liked the survival puzzle (Although most of the clues had nothing to do with cracking codes, just visual clues in the clip (a little disappointing)).

  • Comment number 13.

    megalithic - You better hunt around your favourite stone circle :). I bet the treasure is hidden there. Under the rabbit maybe (I reckon it's fake (The rabbit that is))?

  • Comment number 14.

    @Steven Conner: The name of the function used to predict the maximum weight of the dover sole is called the Probability Density Function for a Normal Distribution. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_distribution for more info.


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