Not quite as easy as 1,2,3

A mind-bending lecture about maths leaves us listeners none the wiser

If you had ever hoped for an accessible programme on the geometric methods adopted to examine the space in multiple dimensions, then The Essay: Symmetry and the Monster (28 April, 11pm, Radio 3) possibly wasn't it. The first in a series of four 15-minute lectures on various mathematicians who have excelled in the study of equations, the programme alleged (ludicrously) that all solutions using the formula of x to the power of anything over 5 and which simultaneously employ a range of continuous tables inevitably deconstructed into groupings that could never be proved relevant. Utter rot!

The first programme was almost entirely devoted to Évariste Galois (after whom the French named their most delicious cigarettes?). A child maths genius who tried to kill himself because he was forced to attend teacher training college, Galois died at the age of 20 in 1832 after being shot in a duel in Paris. Nobody is quite sure what brought the duel on, but, largely in the interests of Symmetry: the Movie, Galois wrote a letter the night before he died in which he outlined in detail his various revolutionary mathematical theories. His last words were, thrillingly: "Don't cry. I need all my courage to die at 20."

For years Galois's propositions were developed and redeveloped by academics, notably the subject of the second programme, a Norwegian born in 1842 called Sophus Lie ("That's -I-E for those of you who might want to look him up") who in the movie must be played by Nick Nolte circa The Deep. A lumbering blond, a "Titan replete with the lust for life", Lie used to leap over horses for fun and once walked to visit a friend, realised he'd left his book at home, and nipped back to fetch it - 36 miles each way. Lie also threatened to kill himself when forced to attend teacher training college (spooky) and worked out his theories using a vibrating string. Hence string theory (?).

The presenter, Professor Mark Ronan, was as sweet as he was incomprehensible. A mathematician himself, he spoke very closely and sincerely into the microphone, using many actorly vocal modulations and different voices, at one point doing a completely whizz impression of Orson Welles complaining about the Swiss. Just occasionally he'd go completely off-piste with little rants about the dating of ancient relics and how much easier everything would be if archaeologists were more organised, and how annoying it is when certain sequences of numbers - 196884 in particular - pop up to haunt the academic like "goblins at a fairground". But he also used lovely heartening phrases such as "let's turn back to" and "to cut a long story short" and "I know this sounds strange, but . . ." He wasn't kidding. The whole series is nuts. For entire minutes Ronan put words together in an order that could do nothing to the mind but bend it, culminating in a call to all intelligent people to examine symmetrical atoms solely by their cross-sections. You have to love him for his faith in us, but really.

The two remaining programmes cover Nazi Germany and Bernd Fischer's "monster" structure of 196,883 dimensions, offering further proof that "mathematics is a subject that continues to surprise its practitioners". No fainting in class, people.

Pick of the week

4 May, 8pm, Radio 3
A recording of the lauded recent Donmar Warehouse production starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Robbie Williams and Jon Ronson Journey to the Other Side
6 May, 6.30pm, Radio 4
The pop star and journalist take a paranormal journey together.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery