10 January 2022, 12:00 am
Magic Numbers: Hannah Fry’s Mysterious World of Numbers (2018)
Programme Type
Films and Exhibitions, Webcasts
End Date
16 January 2022, 11:59 pm

A three part BBC series

In this series, mathematician Dr Hannah Fry explores the mystery of maths. It underpins so much of our modern world that it is hard to imagine life without its technological advances, but where exactly does maths come from? Is it invented like a language or is it something discovered and part of the fabric of the universe? It's a question that some of the most eminent mathematical minds have been wrestling with. Dr Eleanor Knox from King's College London believes it is discovered, Prof Hiranya Peiris from University College London believes it is invented, while Prof Jim Gates from Brown University believes it is both, and Prof Brian Greene from Columbia University has no idea. The jury is very much divided.

Episode III

Weirder and Weirder (59 min) | Click here to watch

Hannah explores a paradox at the heart of modern maths, discovered by Bertrand Russell, which undermines the very foundations of logic that all of maths is built on. These flaws suggest that maths isn't a true part of the universe but might just be a human language - fallible and imprecise. However, Hannah argues that Einstein's theoretical equations, such as E=mc2 and his theory of general relativity, are so good at predicting the universe that they must be reflecting some basic structure in it. This idea is supported by Kurt Godel, who proved that there are parts of maths that we have to take on faith.

Hannah then explores what maths can reveal about the fundamental building blocks of the universe - the subatomic, quantum world. The maths tells us that particles can exist in two states at once, and yet quantum physics is at the core of photosynthesis and therefore fundamental to most of life on earth - more evidence of discovering mathematical rules in nature. But if we accept that maths is part of the structure of the universe, there are two main problems: firstly, the two main theories that predict and describe the universe - quantum physics and general relativity - are actually incompatible; and secondly, most of the maths behind them suggests the likelihood of something even stranger - multiple universes.

We may just have to accept that the world really is weirder than we thought, and Hannah concludes that while we have invented the language of maths, the structure behind it all is something we discover.