3 April 2009

Prime numbers are probably the root of all evil

Did anyone see the Horizon programme on Wednesday with Alan Davies and Marcus Du Sautoy?


For the first five minutes I thought it was going to be one of those oooh look how exciting maths is, er, but actually it's really boring-type programmes. "I know loads of people that hate maths and think it's really boring, but I want to show Alan, show everyone in fact, that it's a wonderful, exciting subject," said Du Sautoy, about 30 seconds in. Which made me terribly suspicious.

And honestly, despite being a scientist and self-confessed geek, maths is not something that has ever pushed my buttons. (I wasn't one of those people who did maths A-Level for fun; I did it because it went with biology and chemistry quite well - and I wasn't really thinking when I handed in the form. I was 16 for Christ's sake).

Anyway, after 15 minutes, Mr Hayley and I were absolutely hooked. The pairing of cynical Davies with the bouncy, infectiously enthusiastic and ever-so-slightly camp Du Sautoy was genius. But what really sealed the deal was the prime numbers...

Oh those prime numbers. They'll be the end of us.

So this German guy called Bernhard Riemann apparently made a graph of prime numbers. It looks a bit like this:

Which makes sense (hoorah!) 'cause there are loads of small prime numbers (on the left - 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc etc) and they occur less often as you go higher.

BUT, the really freaky thing is this... according to Du Sautoy, the same distribution pattern has popped up all over the place, including in the distribution of electrons in uranium, in bus arrival times in a little known Mexican city and - wait for it - the distribution of parked cars in modern day London. And it was at this point that Mr Hayley and I practically jumped out of our seats. "WHAT?"

And THEN, Du Sautoy proceeded to show that if you take a quartz sphere hooked up to an oscilloscope and hit it with a ball bearing, the electrical signal you get also matches this pattern. Sorry, but. No way.

Does everyone know this? Why aren't we all running around looking for the solution? Surely this makes prime numbers the answer to life, the universe and everything? Wait, no, that's 42. >> 19 days left to watch on iPlayer - do it!


Anonymous said...

I wondered about some of these weird coincidences concerning prime numbers too. But the programme was transmitted on April 1st.

Hayley said...

Yes, but after 12pm, so that means if it was all a joke, they're the fools...

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this programme too - I noticed that Alan said he as 42 at the beginning of the programme, could he be the...nah?

Seriously though, comedy is an intellectual dimension, it takes a mental leap of logic, in the way the 4-D cube, to get the joke.

Marcus De Sautoy draws Alan through the stages of building a 4D cube by moving logically up through progressive dimensions. Alan did just the same with him too... like the way that when Marcus and the Quartz sphere boffin made Alan drew conclusions from their mathematical knowledge, Alan could go one(dimension?) higher. And cracked them up. He not only connected to their logic, but lit up their big light bulbs. Love to see that on the brain scans:)

Hayley said...

Comedy - the next dimension. I like it.

Anonymous said...

"Which makes sense (hoorah!) 'cause there are loads of small prime numbers (on the left - 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc etc) and they occur less often as you go higher."

1 is not prime.

Hayley said...

Ha! Very bad schoolboy (girl) error... I stand corrected.

...And that's what the comment facility's for.

Anonymous said...

The number one is prime to some people - depends how you want to define it. Also Du Sautoy has written that the third moment of the Rieman zeta function is actually '42'! (http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/prime_numbers_get_hitched/)