Mathematical formulas can be found in the arrangement of seeds on a sunflower, the structure of the spirals in the shells of certain marine animals, and the distribution of leaves around a plant stem. These formulas recur in nature from snowflakes to the stripes on a zebra.
Wherever we find patterns and symmetry in nature, we also find that nature conforms to certain rules. Rules that combine elegance with efficiency. Rules that shape trees and river estuaries alike, and that continue to baffle scientists by their often unfathomable ubiquity.
By our third year, most of us will have learned to count. Once we know how, it seems as if there would be nothing to stop us counting forever. But, while infinity might seem like an perfectly innocent idea, keep counting and you enter a paradoxical world where nothing is as it seems.
Hannah travels down the fastest zip wire in the world to learn more about Newton's ideas on gravity. His discoveries revealed the movement of the planets was regular and predictable. James Clerk Maxwell unified the ideas of electricity and magnetism, and explained what light was. As if that wasn't enough, he also predicted the existence of radio waves. His tools of the trade were nothing more than pure mathematics. All strong evidence for maths being discovered. But in the 19th century, maths is turned on its head when new types of geometry are invented. No longer is the kind of geometry we learned in school the final say on the subject. If maths is more like a game, albeit a complicated one, where we can change the rules, surely this points to maths being something we invent - a product of the human mind. To try and answer this question, Hannah travels to Halle in Germany on the trail of perhaps one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, Georg Cantor. He showed that infinity, far from being infinitely big, actually comes in different sizes, some bigger than others. This increasingly weird world is feeling more and more like something we've invented. But if that's the case, why is maths so uncannily good at predicting the world around us? Invented or discovered, this question just got a lot harder to answer.
2/3 • Magic Numbers: Hannah Fry's Mysterious World of Maths • 2018 • Math