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Tomorrow’s World, today

14 Dec

During one of my recent procrastination-fuelled trips across the internet (the kind where you begin on Wikipedia and end up fifteen minutes later watching a video about bog snorkelling), I came across an undiscovered gem.

Up until 2003, the BBC broadcast a science-themed TV show called Tomorrow’s World. It was often a showcase for new inventions, giving a nation of goggle-eyed viewers their first ever glimpses of PCs, compact discs, mobile phones, and, errr, the Segway. So I was chuffed to find out that the BBC have uploaded some old Tomorrow’s World episodes to their archive, dating all the way back to 1965.

In the following clip, originally broadcast in 1967, Europe’s very first home computer terminal is introduced, featuring a businessman who seemingly likes to work in his pyjamas:

Rex Malik sees a future world where…every home will have its own terminal plugged into a central brain.” Ring any bells? I think Tomorrow’s World may just have predicted the internet.

He sees his son growing up in a world where eventually his very thoughts could be stored and perhaps assessed for his future use.” I’m not sure about this bit, but it does sound a little like Facebook.

And the next video, from 1979, showcases an experimental cordless mobile phone:

Texting must’ve been a nightmare with that rotary dialer. Keep watching for the outtake at the end…the first incorrect number dialed on a mobile phone.

But although Tomorrow’s World was usually ahead of its time, the show also featured some inventions that are now best forgotten. This clip, from 1968, introduces the plastic garden:

No more weeding! No more withered flowers!  No more mowing! That may be true, but does anyone really want a garden that’s a cross between an AstroTurf football pitch and a tacky restaurant? At least plastic garden chairs caught on…

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The king of maths documentaries

17 May

Back in 1997, Simon Singh – science writer extraordinaire and occasional Uncaged Monkey – directed a documentary about Fermat’s Last Theorem that went on to win the ‘Best Documentary’ award at the BAFTAs and an Emmy Award nomination in the States.

The documentary tells the story of the British mathematician Andrew Wiles, who devoted the best part of 10 years of his life to solving this theorem and fulfilling his childhood dream. One particularly moving passage sees Wiles on the verge of tears as he recounts the moment that the proof finally clicked:

For those who are yet to be acquainted with Monsieur Fermat (rhymes with ‘grandma’, not ‘cat’), he was a French lawyer and mathematician who lived during the 17th century. Although Fermat did a lot of other very useful maths during his lifetime, his most enduring legacy is his ‘Last Theorem’, which states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two.

This means that there are solutions for a2b2c2 (otherwise known as Pythagoras’ theorem, that stalwart of GCSE maths), but that there are no solutions for a3b3c3, or a4b4c4, or a5b5c5, and so on until infinity. The theorem itself is therefore remarkably simple – the proof less so. Scribbling in the margin of one of his textbooks, Fermat claimed that he had found the proof but that it was too lengthy to write down, unwittingly banishing his theorem to the Dingy Dungeons of Unsolved Problems.

Andrew Wiles presenting his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem during a lecture in 1993

Andrew Wiles’ proof came 358 years after the theorem was first conjectured by Fermat. Interestingly, because Wiles used mathematical techniques developed in the 20th century, his proof must have been different from that of Fermat. In fact, most mathematicians today doubt that Fermat had a full proof of his theorem (i.e. for all values of n).

The story of Wiles, his colleagues, and their relentless drive to understand one of math’s greatest mysteries is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, encompassing heroes, rivals, treasure, a suicide, and plenty of (non-evil) geniuses. The full 45-minute documentary can be viewed online here, and if anyone knows of any equally awesome maths-themed documentaries/books out there, I’m all ears!

[Watch] Fermat’s Last Theorem (1997 documentary)

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