TV review: Magic Numbers, A Dangerous Dynasty, and Imagine. . . Hockney, the Queen and the royal peculiar

19 October 2018

BBC/Graeme Thomson

Dr Hannah Fry at Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh

Dr Hannah Fry at Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh

IS GOD number? Or is Number god? Obviously, maths lies at the heart of our faith (God the One-In-Three), but BBC4’s new series Magic Numbers: Hannah Fry’s mysterious world of maths (Wednesdays) seems to suggest that “number” is pretty much the only true reality, and that everything else is a human construct.

Actually, Dr Fry has said nothing of the sort, but it is where I can see it heading. She is leading us compel­lingly through the basic philosophy (or is it theology?) of the subject: is this unifying language of the universe — for we still haven’t encountered anything whose properties cannot be interrogated by means of the science evolved by us poor mortals — something that we discover, or something that we invent?

If we discover it — and the first section of the programme illustrated some of the basic ways in which all the phenomena of nature display basic mathematical relationships — then what we have done down the centuries is to uncover what God put there in the first place: glimpses of divine order.

She then, however, moved on to maths of a very different kind, which had no existence in nature (such as the concept of zero, or the square root of −1), but was rather invented by mathematicians, and has enabled the most fruitful calculation — providing, for example, a secure basis for space travel, very much in the “real world”. Here, she told us firmly, there can be no sense of divine influence.

As usual, we would like to interrogate her about her concept of God; perhaps the deficit lies here rather than in the matter of the universe.

For a good example of godlike power as in reality something diabolical, see A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad (BBC2, Tuesdays). In last week’s first episode, the friendly, mild-mannered London ophthalmic surgeon was forced, on the death of his elder brother, to return home to take over his family business: autocratic rule of Syria. His accession brought hope of reform and liberalisation; but it quickly became clear that beneath the more attractive surface lay the old ruthless suppres­sion of dissent and criticism.

Celebrating a very different dynasty, in Imagine. . . Hockney, the Queen and the royal peculiar (BBC1, Tuesday of last week), Alan Yentob showed how our curious Establishment works: sooner or later, the most outrageous rebel will be fêted and splendidly contribute a new layer to the ancient fabric of our national self-image. In this instance, literally so, as we saw Hockney’s beautiful new Westminster Abbey stained-glass window, celebrating the Queen’s reign, taking shape.

Just as significant, however, is the conceptual statement. As the Dean, the Very Revd John Hall, said, we are entirely happy with this lifelong outsider enriching the church of the coronation. Did Hockney design the window, or discover it?

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