A few numbers short of an equation?
Apple fan Marcus du Sautoy has a theory. There is an underlying code that controls everything in this world, from the behaviour of crowds to who can win at rock, paper, scissors. “We try to make sense of our world”, he says; “today our lives are more complex than ever…”.
So how are things connected; what rules what might seem a random and chaotic world? What is ‘The Code’?
Marcus starts off by telling us the tale of how Christopher Columbus tricked the superstitious inhabitants of the island his ship wrecked upon 500 years ago. Columbus had in his possession a ledger that detailed lunar cycles and told them that their God would eat the moon if they did not provide sustenance to his hungry crew. Sure enough, within a few days, the moon started to disappear and Columbus’ crew were saved.
Is this the mysterious Code? The wax and wane of the moon and the interesting phenomena of an eclipse? Or is it something else? Will The Code be revealed as one of those silly PR equations that dictate the ‘most depressing day of the year’, when you next need a holiday or how to make the perfect cup of tea? Things seem more complex than one unifying code that dictates our lives.
Marcus is nothing if not dedicated to his cause. He puts his life in supposed jeopardy by setting up a deckchair in front of a five and a half metre high ramp and a large, heavy metal ball. Calculating its trajectory on his touch-phone, a risky idea given the possibility of errant finger placement, Marcus took a risk and sat down. The ball hit the very spot he’d marked with a Union Flag. “And that..”, he proclaimed, “is the power of the code.”
Call me silly, but that, I say, is the power of using the laws of physics and mathematics. It’s not much of a code so far. Is Marcus saying that The Code is one of basic laws or one ‘unifying code’ as he seems to say at the beginning? What are the applications of ‘The Code’? Can I use it like a voucher, to level up or unlock hidden aspects of my life? When will he reveal it?
Starlings are next up, as examples of his theory; one I’m beginning to think should be referred to as ‘a code’ – surely there really isn’t just one? Will Marcus tell us the meaning of life, the universe and everything? Will the last few minutes refer us to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ for more info?
Swathes of synchronised birds in a writhing mass fill the screen, twirling and swirling, never careening into each other. It turns out that each Starling only needs to keep track of seven other birds at one time and it is entirely possible to map their behaviour on a computer model, using three simple rules. Is this part of the elusive code?
Marcus moves on to humans. Surely human behaviour can’t be predicted by ‘The Code’? But that’s where I’m wrong: it can, and there are applications in constructing buildings that are optimal for evacuation. Still no actual code yet though.
There are several more ‘examples’ given throughout the programme and Marcus asserts ‘we’ve uncovered evidence of ‘The Code’. However, even on repeated viewing, I struggle to comprehend what this code is, if not simply the fact that many patterns and behaviours can be explained with mathematics, probability and physics. There is no code: just general laws that he explains very well in their individual examples.
Perhaps this title and grandiose assertions that ‘The Code’ reveals fundamental truths about our lives was a way of jazzing up what could otherwise be a potentially dry subject; bringing in a layman crowd, but I felt that the idea of a central code that ruled everything was misleading and detracted from my viewing. I spent the entire show wondering when he was due to reveal the one true code and how these examples all fitted together. The programme seemed educational, interesting and gorgeous enough, without adding in an unfounded statement. There’s simply no denying that it was beautifully filmed. Gratuitous use of the tilt-shift camera effect and ‘Beautiful Mind’ style scrolling words and numbers make it a sight to be savoured in HD.
Aware that I was possibly missing something, I turned to the internet and discovered, in all places, the Daily Mail’s article, penned by du Sautoy himself: “Mathematics is the code that controls not only our world and everything in it, but even us, a jumble of millions of individuals” (my emphasis).
Reviewed by Tannice for thecustard.tv. Follow Tannice on Twitter.