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Terry Jones hosts this documentary on the number one. It looks at early evidence of counting, the use of numbers for simple arithmetic in Sumeria, the development of large numbers and their use for engineering in Egypt, the worship of numbers by Pythagoras and the theoretical mathematics of the Archimedes. It also looks at the use of numbers by the Romans, the development of Arabic numerals in India, the discovery of the number zero, the development of algebra in the Islamic world, the decline of Roman numerals in the west, and the development of the binary system. Written by
A bit too populist for some but a very interesting and enjoyable look at a subject that is usually delivered in a dull and inaccessible fashion
Our world is built on numbers and the first of these was the number 1. Starting with scratches on a bone and heading through the Greek philosophers to the development of the Roman Numerals and the Arabic number system that fed through to the numbers we use today. It sounds like a rather select audience programme that you would expect to find on BBC4 and be a rather stuffy affair. So credit to BBC for making it as fun as possible and sticking it on a primetime slot on the main channel BBC1.
Using Terry Jones semi-comic presentation style, the film is built on two key aspects. The main part of the film is based on Jones' narration, the actual words he says. Without being aloof or inaccessible, the film tells the story in a fascinating and enlightening way never going into too much detail but doing enough to actually make you feel like you have learnt something and have a very broad knowledge base on which to go off and find out more. The other aspect is the delivery style colourful, irreverent and fun. Mostly this works and the graphics and comedy add entertainment value to the film without taking away from the interesting content; however at times the constant computerised numbers do get a little annoying and I did want it to be too cheerful and populist but I suppose it was damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.
Jones is a good presenter because he holds these two directions together seeming genuinely enticed by the subject while also enjoying himself. He is perfect for the broad approaching while he also drops in some great little bits of trivia (the word bankrupt coming from the Italian courts punishing a cheating banker by breaking his table; or the Italian zero being so mistrusted as a symbol that its original name giving us the word "cipher" today).
Overall, it may annoy the more aloof viewer of intellectual, stuffy documentaries about maths and science but this film succeeds in presenting the potentially dull subject in such a lively and entertaining manner that it deserves the audience it won. Perhaps a little too populist at times, it is still very interesting and enjoyable and is the sort of programme that almost makes you think that the BBC is fulfilling its public service charter. Well, I did say "almost".
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