Tomorrow, on Monday July 16th from 25:23 to 25:53 (i.e. July 17th from 1:23-1:53 AM), Fuji Television will screen an episode of “Takeshi Kitano presents Comaneci University Mathematics” focussing on Knot Theory! Although not exactly at a prime time slot, this is an Emmy nominated popular TV series. It will be focussed on Kouki Taniyama’s Knot Theory seminar at Waseda University, and they will have permission to upload clips to Kouki Taniyama’s homepage after the episode has been screened. This is major media exposure. One hopes that the ratings will be as high as possible, and that other TV stations in other countries will catch on to the fact that low dimensional topology makes good television.
The best exposure low dimensional topology ever got in Japan, I think, was NHK’s 2007 Special Why the 100-year-old conjecture was proven about Perelman, Geometrization, and the Poincaré Conjecture. This documentary told a compelling story to people with no mathematical background, to entertain instead of to educate. There was virtually no gossip in it (unlike media coverage of the topic in Russia, for example), and the real hero was the mathematics. At the dramatic climax, you feel like shouting out “Of course! The key missing idea is differential geometry on Alexandrov spaces!!” without necessarily knowing what any of those words mean. It’s just very good television. I couldn’t find it online (it’s in Japanese anyway, so inaccessible for most readers without a translation) because it’s copywrited material, but I did find this video which, despite being heavily edited, gives some flavour of what it was like.
Another interesting aspect of the story is that, in his book with the same name about the documentary, Kasuga Masahito talks about the process of making the film and makes a number of interesting points. The first was the attitude of some mathematicians which he interviewed, that the project was a waste of time and that nobody would ever watch a film about Geometrization. He sort of felt that “making documentaries is my job. I know what sells and what doesn’t better than you do.” Ultimately, he was proven correct- the documentary was a ratings success, and almost all of the people who enjoyed it had no mathematical background. It so impressed Dai Fujiwara, creative director of the Issey Miyake fashion house, that he based his fall 2010/2011 fashion collection on geometrization, in collaboration with Bill Thurston. I think that this shows that low dimensional topology indeed has wide appeal in the most unexpected of places, because you can draw pictures, make clothing, and see the world in new ways.
The second point which Kasuga Masahito made was that some of the mathematicians whom he interviewed had tremendous difficulty explaining mathematical ideas to somebody with no university-level mathematics education. Even when the kernels of the ideas were extremely simple, many of the mathematicians had difficulty expressing them in plain Japanese/ English, and often needed a lot of prodding by the journalist in order to formulate them for the lay audience.
A third provocative point was that his impression of mathematicians was not that we are all intimidating super-geniuses, but rather that we’re a bunch of curious children who refused to grow up. Research mathematics, then, is about shielding ourselves against the trap of growing up and being forced to stop asking questions. He contends that we publish papers in order to protect ourselves against being forced out of our shielded world to do a “real job”; but sometimes the questions that we think about happen accidentally to have applications outside mathematics.
Update: Extracts from the programme are up!
Most are written material, but there’s a clip of Kouki Taniyama showing his Nunchaku skills: