Monday, 6 September 2010

The Secret of Maths

The secret of maths is ziggurats, boats, rivers, souks, vats of dye, men on white horses galloping across sand, camels, moustaches, rain, dogs, and umbrellas.

OK, so I made up the last five. Those are definitely not the secret of maths. The secret of maths is the man on a white horse galloping across sand and the first five things. The man on the white horse is Marcus de Sautoy and the programme is The Story of Maths.

Unfortunately The Story of Maths is, as C put it, more travelogue than maths. I have absolutely no doubt about the qualification of Marcus de Sautoy to conduct us through the story of maths, but frankly, I am not getting much maths. I think I caught a few sentences about arabic numerals. I do believe he might have said something algebra and quadratic equations, in fact there might have been a whole five minutes on that before he got on to the problem of cubic numbers.

Of course the problem might be that I didn't see Episode One, in which there would have been an exhaustive explanation of everything. We must have got the maths there, right at the beginning, and the story with the pretty bits afterwards.

It was at this point I switched channels. He was about to go to another pretty place and say another exciting portentous thing of which I did not understand the portent. Inwardly I was turning into a stick-in-the-mud (non-picturesque mud), green-ink-writing backwoodsman-Tory. The BBC sends this, no doubt, gifted man all over the place in order to give me five minutes on algebra! If I had wanted to look at exotic landscapes I'd have bought a calendar not a TV licence! If I'd wanted to see a man on a white horse galloping across sand I'd have taken out a DVD of Lawrence of Arabia!

I have a faint memory of doing not only Maths, but, mirabile dictu, Additional Maths at O level. The additional maths teacher, Mr C, was an imposing figure who was probably just as good at imposing as teaching. He was probably good at both. His first act in our first class was to pick up the blackboard duster (it was a backward time the 1960s and we still had blackboards), examine it with a puzzled look on his face, then throw it full force against the wall. This puzzled us, especially when he picked the duster up and did it again. He repeated the action once more for full effect, then he took the register. I must have learned something, as I passed quite handsomely. He didn't have to do quadratic equations. They must have come a couple of years earlier. I could ride a quadratic equation in those days the way Marcus de Sautoy rides a horse.

What I really want the BBC to do is to bring back Mr C, if he's still alive, or if not they could have him acted by Deryck Guyler, except he's definitely dead - but why not bring him back all the same. This is not a cheap show and it can pay for the best resurrectionists.

The new Story of Maths would begin with Mr C throwing the blackboard duster against the wall. It could become a kind of leitmotif between themes. In between dusters he'd give you quadratic equations, a series of them perhaps, for an hour. One location only, upstairs in the science building with a view of the bike sheds. The very best bike sheds of course and the finest blackboards money can buy.


PHT said...

I have spent much more time than I should reading various pages of your website "discovered" today. I entered "understrappers" into Google and found your excellent explanation of this and myth-kitty within the article on a World Cup match, what a great random search! I am shortly facilitating a poetry workshop as part of Budleigh Salterton Lit Festival fringe and wanted to check out Larkin's meaning, just in case someone asks me about it! Thanks for the help, great writing too.

George S said...

Very late reply, JHT, but delighted to meet you here in these ochre and rain pastures.