Media

The Code: seeing patterns in chaos

Science

Pete Wilton | 27 Jul 11

Marcus du Sautoy with Nautilus shell

Take a step back from the messy everyday world and you find intruiging patterns and structures in everything from shells to drips of paint.

In his new three-part series The Code, which starts on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, Oxford University's Marcus du Sautoy explores the mathematical stories behind these patterns and how they influence every aspect of our lives.

I asked Marcus about the making of the series and how he set out to bring mathematical ideas to the small screen...

Oxford Science Blog: What was the inspiration for the series?
Marcus du Sautoy: The series grew out of the success of The Story of Maths, my four part series on the history of maths, for BBC4 and the two Horizons I did on maths with comedian Alan Davies on BBC2.

Natural history or astronomy are subjects that translate easily to the screen but the abstract world of mathematics is a much tougher challenge. I think the programmes I have made to date gave the BBC courage that we really can do a major series for BBC2 on mathematics.

OSB: What mathematical ideas did you most enjoy bringing to TV?
MdS: It was fun to meet some of my mathematical heroes. For example meeting the cicadas that use prime numbers for their evolutionary survival was exciting.

The Nautilus shell is one of the iconic images of the mathematical world but I'd never actually come face to face with the strange creature that lives inside the shell. It was also exciting to visit Pixar studios and to discover how many mathematicians they employ to create the fractal landscapes in their films. The company was founded by a guy who read Mandelbrot's book on fractals and realised they were the key to modern animation.

OSB: How are online and social media getting viewers involved?
MdS: TV has been trying to crack how to make the experience of watching telly interactive. With this new series I think we've come up with a unique concept to engage viewers in the ideas of the programme. We are running a mathematical treasure hunt in parallel with the series which challenges viewers to crack puzzles, look for clues in the programmes and play addictive online games.

We wanted to create a Code Community who are working together to crack the Challenge so twitter and Facebook are powerful tools for bringing together people who are watching the series. We have a community challenge to collect photos of all the primes from 2 to 2011 which has really galvanised the community.

OSB: What are your favourite moments from filming the series?
MdS: Filming in Jackson Pollock's studio was fascinating. You can still see all the paint splattered around the studio. We made our own Pollock using a chaotic pendulum. I'm hoping to sell it on eBay for a few million. It can help fund the new maths department for Oxford.

OSB: What do you hope viewers will take away from it?
MdS: I want viewers to see the world they live in through the eyes of a mathematician. To realise how much pattern and structure can be found in our messy chaotic world if you translate it into the code of mathematics. And also to see mathematics in a new light as a subject full of great stories with huge influence on our modern world.

Marcus du Sautoy is Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Image: Marcus with Nautilus shell: Photo: BBC.