16 October 2007

Look Around You (BBC spoof)

At YouTube: Look Around You - 1 - Maths, an episode of the BBC spoof science program Look Around You. (Why don't we have spoof science programs in this country? As it is, I can't tell which parts I found funny because they're mathematically silly and which parts I found silly because they're British.)

Who scribbles meaningless mathematical formulas on the wall, like the kids at the beginning? It often bothers me when meaningless mathematical notation is used for "effect", because it doesn't even look like something a clueless student might scribble; it just takes a bunch of symbols and throws them out there, and I try to understand them but can't. I am incapable of looking at mathematical symbols and not trying to understand them. I suspect this is something like the Stroop effect, which is the experimentally observed effect that it's easier for people to read words which name colors when the ink color matches the colors named by the words than when they disagree. (Incidentally, in this article from the New Republic, excerpted from his new book The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker, reporting on an experiment by Don MacKay, says we have even more trouble doing this task when the words are not color words but obscene words; essentially, people can't ignore obscenity. I can't ignore mathematics.)

and I wonder if "Chapter 3.1415926" of the textbook actually exists, since I don't know the context of this. It reminds me of the version number of TeX, which gets one digit longer with each new version; Knuth has requested that after he dies the version number be fixed at π.

There are two people for whom the largest number they could think of was "a hundred thousand" and "nine hundred ninety-nine thousand", which is kind of surprising; why can't you just add one to both of those? At least someone who answered "999,999" is admitting that they don't know the word for the next number. (The program makes light of this by suggesting a very large number as the very largest number... and then adding one to it.)

I also rather liked the following description of a circle: "A uniformly curved line that somehow joins up with itself that science has yet to find a name for. Can you think of a name for it? If you can, the Royal Mathematics Society would like to hear from you, because they hold a competition each year to find a name for this figure." Ah, if only it were so easy. Naming things isn't hard. (Giving them good names, on the other hand, is quite tricky, especially if you restrict yourself to words that are already words existing in natural languages; I want to be sure that the words I pick to name something don't have the wrong connotations. Sure, I can tell people to ignore them, but it's not so easy to actually do so!)

Also, this video is about "maths", not "math". Are other Americans bothered by this, too? I've never been entirely sure what to make of the fact that across the pond, my field is plural.


.mau. said...

well, think at us, poor non-English speaking people who are never able to remember whether math is American and maths British, or the other way round!

jackv said...

Mau: :)

On this side, I was always bothered by "math". Somehow it just sounded odd, and sort of ugly, although considering it, I admit it seems a more logical contraction. Now I've got used to it and can hear either interchangeably.

FWIW, I tend to imagine "maths" as the contraction of "math-ematic-s" rather than the plural of it. On the other hand, other aggregate nouns sound plural

Anonymous said...

maths is proper in England... I thought it was odd too, like it was suggesting multiple variations or something.

I thought the video was hilarious, btw. I'm sure you tried writing down the "8women with 8pence want a spider and 8spider shoes each..." problem then solving it, eh?

Jamie said...

Funny stuff! I'm all for more math and science spoofs.

Also, now I get why in Karma Police (a song by Radiohead) he says - "... Karma Police, arrest this man, he talks in maths ...". It apparently never bugged me enough to research it, but I'm so glad to understand that now. Thanks!

Efrique said...

Most of the rest of the English speaking world:

Statistics --> stats
Mathematics --> maths

USA (and I presume Canada, but I don't know for sure):

Statistics --> stats
Mathematics --> math

So apparently it's the rest of us that are doing something "odd" there. Thanks for that.

I enjoy your blog, by the way, but really, that was beneath you. Yes, people in other countries do things differently to in the USA. Get over it.