Creation by the Numbers

The Puzzling Facts Surrounding Mathematics and Reality

If you have ever been told not to worry about learning something new because there is no math involved, don’t you believe it. As a new PBS documentary makes clear, math is involved with everything. Go figure.


The Great Math Mystery:

Invention or Discovery?

Nova • PBS

If you have ever been told not to worry about learning something new because there is no math involved, don’t you believe it. As a new PBS documentary makes clear, math is involved with everything. Go figure.




Astrophysicist Mario Livio (author of Is God a Mathematician?), along with a colorful cast of mathematicians, physicists, and engineers, follows math from Pythagoras to Einstein and beyond, all leading to the ultimate riddle: Is math an invention or a discovery? Humankind’s clever trick, or the language of the universe? NOVA takes you on a mathematical mystery tour—a provocative exploration of math’s astonishing power across the centuries.

The documentary starts out with a reminder that we live in an age of astonishing advances—engineers can land a car-sized rover on Mars; physicists probe the essence of all matter; we communicate wirelessly on a vast, world-wide network; but underlying all of these modern wonders is something deep and mysteriously powerful. It’s been called the language of the universe; and, perhaps, it’s civilization’s greatest achievement—its name: mathematics. So, the producers question: where does math come from, and why in science, does it work so well? And, is it the key to the cosmos? Our physical world doesn’t have just some mathematical properties, it has only mathematical properties.

Starting out with the Fibonacci scale and on to a discussion of pi, the film gives examples of their occurrences in nature. Pi is but one example of a vast, interconnected web of mathematics that seems to reveal an often hidden, and deep, order to our world. Physicist, Max Tegmark of MIT (and author of Our Mathematical Universe), thinks he knows why. He sees similarities between our world and that of a computer game. “If I were a character in a computer game that was so advanced that I was actually conscious, and I started exploring my video game world, it would actually feel to me like it was made of real, solid objects made of physical stuff. Yet, if I started studying, as the curious physicist that I am, the properties of this stuff, equations by which things move, and the equations that give the stuff its properties, I would discover eventually that all of these properties were mathematical—the mathematical properties that the programmer had actually put into the software that describes everything.”

The laws of physics in a game, offers the narrator, like how an object floats, bounces, or crashes, are only mathematical rules created by a programmer. Ultimately, the entire universe of a computer game is just numbers and equations.

Tegmark continues: “And that’s exactly what I see in this reality, too, as a physicist. The closer I look at things that are not mathematical…the more mathematical they turn out to be. Could it be that our world also, then, is really just as mathematical as the computer game reality?”

To Max, continues the narrator, the software world of a game isn’t that different from the physical world we live in. He thinks that mathematics works so well to describe reality because, ultimately, mathematics is all that it is—there’s nothing else. (Could it be, as some might believe, that All That Is, is the ultimate programmer?)

“Many of my physics colleagues will say that mathematics describes our physical reality, at least in some approximate sense. I go further and argue that it actually IS our physical reality; because, I’m arguing that our physical world doesn’t just have some mathematical properties, but that it has ONLY mathematical properties.”

According to Max, our physical reality is a bit like a photograph; a photo of a pond, looks like the pond, but as we move in closer, we can see that it is really only a field of pixels, each represented by three numbers that specify the amount of red, green, and blue.

Taking this further, then, into the vast size and complexity of the universe that requires an unbelievably large collection of numbers to describe it, Max sees its underlying mathematical structure as surprisingly simple—it’s just 32 numbers, constants, like the masses of elementary particles, along with a handful of mathematical equations, the fundamental laws of physics; so, everything is mathematical.

Max Tegmark’s Matrix-like view (should we give a shout-out to the Wachowski brothers/Neo?) that mathematics doesn’t just describe reality but is its essence, may sound radical, but it has deep roots in history.

So much more is covered in this one-hour DVD. Of course, you’ll be taken back to the work of Pythagoras and Plato. Plato believed that geometry and mathematics exist in their own ideal world. His Platonic Solids are covered here. He assigned each one of them to one of the elements that formed the world as he saw it—the stable cube was Earth; the tetrahedron, with its pointy corners, was fire; the mobile-looking octahedron, Plato thought of as air; the twenty-sided icosahedron was water; and the dodecahedron was the thing that signified the cosmos as a whole.

So, adds the narrator, Plato’s mathematical forms were the ideal version of the world around us. They existed in their own realm. And however bizarre that may sound, that mathematics exists in its own world, shaping the world we see, is an idea that to this day, many mathematicians and scientists can relate to—the sense they have when they’re doing math that they’re just uncovering something that’s already out there.

This documentary offers that mathematics has guided the way right down to the subatomic building blocks of matter, which raises the question, why does it even work at all? Is there an inherent mathematical nature to reality? Or is mathematics all in our heads? This seems to beg for the consciousness-before-matter school of thought.

With excellent production quality and graphics, and so much covered in sixty minutes, this is one you might want to view more than once.

DVD – 60 Min. • $24.95 • 1-800-228-8381



Secrets of the Third Reich

The Stories No One Knows About the War No One Can Forget

Smithsonian Channel

A celebrated Nazi general who plots Hitler’s assassination. A sunken U-boat that mysteriously vanishes. An Alpine fortress that may house millions in lost Nazi gold. Decades after World War II, many secrets of the Third Reich are still unfolding. This documentary delves deeply into some of the conflict’s most prominent events and notorious figures and uncovers some little-known stories that helped determine the outcome of WWII and the fate of those who fought in it. The program actually includes four different documentaries: Hitler’s Madness, Hitler’s General, The Ghost of U-513, and Deadly Missions:

Hitler’s Madness questions: Was Hitler’s personal physician, Theodor Morell, actually a double agent assigned to kill his boss, or was he simply a quack? And did his dubious medical treatments contribute to the mad dictator’s extreme behavior? Recently discovered medical records reveal evidence about Hitler’s drug abuse, mental illness, and the controversial doctor he entrusted with his life. Interviews with medical experts and historians shed light on the Fuhrer’s health and what bearing it had on his military and political decisions.

Hitler’s trusted, personal doctor for nine years was Theodor Morell. Hitler heaped praise and honors upon him. But there was one critical condition that Dr. Morell was late in diagnosing, a debilitating disease that mirrored Hitler’s crumbling Reich. While the shattered remnants of the SS and army units made their last stands, Hitler went underground in a vast, concrete bunker under the Reich Chancellery building in Berlin. It was one of the last times the Fuhrer would have been seen alive outside of his bunker. A propaganda film was supposed to show Hitler still in command, decorating brave, young defenders of the Reich. But a critical part of the footage was deemed unfit for viewing, cut and presumably, intended to be, destroyed, but the footage survived. It was found in an East German film laboratory in the 1970s. The clip clearly shows the shaking Hitler could no longer control. He had begun to show symptoms of Parkinson’s disease during the war; he had a tremor in his left hand. Morell had first noted Hitler’s condition in 1941 and put it down to stress. It was only in the final days of the war that he made the correct diagnosis, shaking palsy, or Parkinson’s disease.

Hitler’s General: Erwin Rommel was Hitler’s favorite general, a military marvel and the German Army’s idol. He was also a morally conflicted, high-ranking member of the Nazi Party, often refusing to carry out extreme orders and ultimately aiding an assassination plot against the Fuhrer. What really happened? The truth about the Desert Fox reveals one of the most complex and intriguing figures of the war. His rise and fall are covered through rare archival footage and interviews with Rommel biographers, historians, and the general’s own family. Rommel was one of Germany’s finest generals, and he was revered by his own countrymen, but also admired and respected by people like Churchill and Montgomery. He, of course, came to a very sad end.

The Ghost of U-13: The pride of the wolfpacks, German sub U-513, became a tomb for all but seven of her crew after being bombed by a U.S. patrol plane in 1943. The U-boat then vanished off the South American coast, where it was lost for more than 68 years. This documentary covers the ghost ship’s story through rare archival footage and interviews with U-boat vets, and it follows the Brazilian entrepreneur, Alfredo Sherman, who set out to uncover her buried secrets and to share the exact moment it was discovered—after 17 trips and days of searching.

Deadly Missions: Not all of war’s battles took place on the front lines. Many were fought in the shadows, carried out by special force operatives. You can witness here four infamous secret missions, executed by both sides during the war. The documentary investigates the haphazard rescue of Mussolini. Though framed by the Third Reich, as one of the most perilous and daring missions of WWII, the freeing of Il Duce was nothing more than a friendly photo op. Also revisited is a notorious Nazi’s assassination, and then recounted is an audacious kidnapping with a surprise ending.

This could be a welcome addition to a Nazi history buff’s collection; for general interest, there are several possible surprises. Narration by historians and professors combined with archived newsreels presents another interesting documentary on a much-reviewed segment of history.

DVD – 230 Min. • $22.95 • 1-800-228-8381


Founding Fathers

The Men Who Shaped Our Nation and Changed the World

History Channel • A&E

The History Channel offers this blurb on the DVD cover: “They were the most legendary and respected politicians, statesmen, and warriors of history’s first republic since the days of ancient Rome. They were also traitors and smugglers, rabble-rousers and hotheads, unfaithful husbands, and prodigious drinkers. Because, despite what some history books and much folklore would have us believe, our nation’s revered “Founding Fathers” were, in fact, human beings. Now, in this four-part series, we gain a fascinating, engagingly intimate glimpse behind the iconic images on the marble busts and the noble faces gazing out from our dollar bills and pocket change. And we discover the remarkable, unseen, private sides of the men who risked their reputations, fortunes, and lives for the cause of American independence.”

Interspersed with reenactments, are segments of various historians providing comments on the trivial, with some sensationalist glee, chosen by the History Channel, of course; and they do at times seem to come from an ideological perspective, which is something to be aware of, as I’ve noticed they have done in other productions. This four-part series begins each segment with: “But behind the labels and beneath the facades, they were more than heroes, they were human… in another era, John Adams would have needed Prozac… Hamilton had the first sex scandal… the amount of alcohol was staggering… this is the story of our Founding Fathers.” THIS—is the story of our Founding Fathers?! Considering that the U.S.A. would not exist without them, one would think that the History Channel could have been more creative in showing their humanness, rather than to just drag them through the mud. So—Patrick Henry had a monstrous temper; Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were flirts; John Hancock and Alexander Hamilton were greedily ambitious; John Adams was disagreeable in most senses of the word; and Thomas Paine was a drunk. But they did come together to found a nation.

The telling of this story follows neither individuals nor the narrative of the revolution in a coherently chronological way. It’s generally timely—each episode delves into the people and events of a particular set of years—but often the need to spin a biography of a founding father gets in the way of documenting the events themselves. Just when it starts to make progress on explaining one thing, it switches to the biography of an individual. And then, for instance, just when you’re getting interesting information on Alexander Hamilton’s Caribbean youth, you’re thrown back into a discussion of the war’s progress.

The History Channel implies that their goal in this DVD is to portray our founding founders as human beings with flaws like anyone else, but it appears throughout much of it, that their goal is to replace the viewer’s respectful opinion with one of disappointment—reducing our national heroes to mediocrity. Of course the founders were not examples of perfection (who is?), but they were men of character whose words and actions showed their true intent. They did, after all, step up to meet the challenges to liberty. And generations have enjoyed a free country thanks to them. And nowhere is there even the mention of Providence, which, some do think, is the “rest of the story”! For those so inclined, I refer you to Atlantis Rising # 40, in the cover article, “America’s Ancient Architect: Were the Founders Pursuing a Secret Agenda?”

At least this is a good theatrical production as far as the quality of reenactments goes, with some interesting voice-over actors you might recognize: James Woods as John Adams and Hal Holbrook as Ben Franklin.

DVD – 200 Min. – 2 Disc Set (2 segments each) • $19.95 • 1-800-228-8381

By Marsha Oaks