British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Five Shapes

Synopsis
In new series about Five Shapes, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy finds his favourite forms in some highly unlikely places. He visits a spherical building in Paris, hears music inspired by the symmetries of the cube, finds out why pyramids proliferate at the molecular level and why the bagel is not only good to eat, but a great shape for buildings and cracking codes. But could the most shapeless shape of all - the blob - soon dominate our world?
Language
English
Country
Great Britain
Year of release
2005
Year of production
2004
Notes
Broadcast in 5 weekly parts on Radio 4 from 31.8.2004
Subjects
Architecture; Mathematics
Keywords
architectural design; pyramids; spheres; topology; cubes; tori

Online availability

URI
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/fiveshapes.shtml
Price
free
Delivery
Streamed

Sections

Title
Cube, The
Synopsis
The first programme explores the cube and asks why this highly practical form is not used more and what it looks like in four dimensions. The cube’s perfect symmetry makes it the ideal shape for packing and stacking - no space is wasted and it doesn’t matter which way round it is stacked on the supermarket shelf. But when Sainsburys put tomato soup in cube-shaped cans, consumers didn’t like it. Apple’s cube-shaped computer was quickly replaced by something more ergonomically curvy - the iMac. And cube-shaped televisions are watched only by the designing elite. The cube was the building block of modern architecture - admired for its purity and simplicity. But perhaps it’s just a little bit too perfect for mainstream taste. However there is one cube that consumers do like. In fact, they’re so attached to its form that damaged cubes, not taste are responsible for the majority of Oxo customer complaints.
Duration
15 mins

Title
Pyramid, The
Synopsis
The Pyramid - a classic shape in which Pharoahs were buried, a triangular influence on modern designers who find inspiration in its simplicity. Though surprisingly rare in buildings, it is omnipresent on a smaller scale in nature.
Duration
15 mins

Title
Sphere, The
Synopsis
As the most economical shape for containing matter, the sphere’s perfect form has fascinated the minds of men for millennia. From planets to raindrops, nature abounds with spheres. Since Pythagoras and Plato, Arab and European thinkers believed the planets of the solar system to lie on the surface of concentric crystal spheres, each emitting its peculiar harmony, audible as the "music of the spheres". Although nature constructs spheres with ease, it’s not the case for designers and manufacturers. Architects have tried since the Pantheon of Rome in the 2nd century AD to use the form, symbolic of unity, democracy and celestial perfection in cathedrals, mosques and temples. And yet that has never been easy. The Millennium Dome in Greenwich did not turn out to be the section of the perfect sphere that it was designed to be and a startlingly high number of table-tennis balls don’t make it past tests for roundness on to the professional table.
Duration
15 mins

Title
Bagel, The
Synopsis
The bagel, or torus, is not merely a good shape for baking - it’s also a good shape for office complexes, code-breaking and maybe even universes. As one of the simplest building blocks in the relatively new and highly versatile subject of topology, the bagel is arguably the most important shape in modern mathematics.
Duration
15 mins

Title
Blob, The
Synopsis
The last programme in the series examines the blob. From globular cartoon characters to curvy cars, or natural shapes such as pine cones and gherkins, the blob has always been part of our landscape. But now they are taking over our cities, as architects have adopted the computer technology used in car design and animation.

Marcus Du Sautoy talks to architect Zaha Hadid who has done a number of curvy buildings from the Innsbruck Ski Jump to the tram Station in Strasbourg whose car park mimics the swirls of a magnetic field. Plus the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati which has curves so tempting they have had to put up a sign saying "no skateboarders". Hadid explains how new technology has facilitated the design of these sites, backed up by her childhood liking for maths and trigonometry.

Closer to home are the recent Selfridges building in Birmingham and the Swiss Re on the River Thames - nicknamed The Gherkin by locals. Marcus Du Sautoy talks to two of the mathematicians behind the Swiss Re and finds that they smoothed out the edges on computer to create a shape that was both beautiful yet functional.

But if we now have the software to make perfect designs, do we still need mathematicians to work out equations at the drawing board? Without a doubt. Although computer technology is a great facilitator, in the wrong hands it can lead to bland buildings being designed at the push of a button. If we want to keep uniqueness, we need mathematicians more now than ever.
Duration
15 mins

Production Company

Name

BBC Radio 4

Web
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4 External site opens in new window

Record Stats

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