Tag Archives: Simon Singh

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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Review: Uncaged Monkeys in Birmingham

6 May

This week saw the start of the Uncaged Monkeys tour – the first ever national science tour to be let loose on the British public. Robin Ince (co-presenter of Radio 4’s ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’) is the host, and he’s joined by Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Helen Arney, the ‘Peter Andre of particle physics’, Brian Cox, and a smattering of other sciencey people over the different dates.

A tribe of monkeys (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

I watched the Birmingham leg last night at the Alexandra Theatre, a curious, timeworn place where you expect Ken Dodd to jump out from behind a curtain at any minute, waving his feather duster. The theatre was completely sold out and busier than Berlusconi’s bedroom. Maybe it’s the Brian Cox effect – two girls sitting behind me were discussing whether to hire the binoculars when he came onstage. Either way, it felt a long way from my undergraduate physics days.

The Uncaged Monkeys in cardboard cutout form (http://weepaperpeople.blogspot.com/)

The master of ceremonies, Robin Ince, is a very, very funny man. I’d quite happily pay to see him perform his own stand-up show. But last night was all about the science, so on with the boffins. First up was Ben Goldacre, who gave a talk based on his ‘Bad Science’ book about medical scandals, drug trial farces and Daily Mail scare stories. A lot more fun than it sounds, especially when he laid into TV nutritionist ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith and talked about signing up his dead cat, Hettie, for the American Association of Nutritional Consultants.

As expected, Brian Cox did the wide-eyed ‘Wonders of the Universe’ thing that he could probably do in his sleep by now. This man seems to have a superhuman ability for memorising long numbers, and all credit to someone who can explain both relativity and the Standard Model in five minutes without batting an eyelid. He also played this clip of Carl Sagan describing the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, taken by Voyager 1 as it looked back towards the distant Earth – really beautiful, humbling stuff.

Simon Singh kept on the astronomy/cosmology theme with his Big Bang talk, as did Helen Keen with her irreverent overview of the Space Race (conclusion: we owe our space successes to Nazis and Satanists). The other Helen, of the Arney variety, provided an awesome musical interlude in the form of ukulele songs about animal sex rituals and Countdown presenter envy. Just a normal night at the theatre, then.

Simon Singh and the glowing gherkin (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

Science in a theatre worked surprisingly well. OK, so the production values were virtually non-existent (the nearest we got to special effects was Simon Singh electrifying a gherkin), but the presenters and their Powerpoints were alone enough to captivate the audience for the full three hours. Bells and whistles obviously aren’t needed when the subject matter is this mind-blowing. Or maybe that was just the effect of Prof Cox’s velvety tones…

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