"Life," the New "Planet Earth," Premieres Sunday, 8pm

Premiering Sunday (March 21) at 8pm on the Discovery Channel in the US: Life, a new documentary miniseries from the producers of Planet Earth. Set your DVRs now!

Back in 2006, we were treated to Planet Earth, a BBC/Discovery Channel coproduction which was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first shot in full HD. It was a groundbreaking series, and for good reason -- four years of hard filming brought us spectacular photography and compelling narratives, making every one of its eleven episodes memorable. Now, four years later, the team is back with Life, a series that promises more of the same -- and boy, does it deliver. It took 70 camerapeople in 50 countries to shoot this thing. Here's the trailer:

Now, let me back up for a minute and talk about how documentary reviewing works, at least for me as a blogger. Media outlets (in my case, PBS and several science-related cable channels) send me their upcoming schedules, and I pick out shows that might interest the mental_floss audience. I ask for "screeners" (generally hand-burned DVDs, often not the final versions of the shows) which then arrive in the mail with a brief info packet, or a link to some website with PR info. I watch the DVD, and if I think it's good, I write about it. To be honest, a lot of the time the material isn't good enough to write about, and that's that. On those happy occasions when the material is good, I write it up right here.

So it was a big surprise when I got the Life press kit. Normally a press kit for a documentary is a DVD (sometimes two, if it's a two-parter) with a handmade label, and a few photocopied sheets of press info. Everything is stamped with "for press review only," has no commercial value, and so on. But the Life press kit is basically a gigantic coffee-table book with an embedded video playing device -- yes, a video screen inside the book, with speakers -- and screeners available both in DVD and Blu-ray. (See video of the kit here.) As soon as I saw the kit, I was suspicious: the kit was so elaborate that I thought either a) the film isn't that great, so it needs massive PR help; or b) the film is SUPER GREAT and Discovery is so psyched about it that they went a little nuts on the PR front. I'm pleased to announce that it's the latter -- actually watching five hours of the show (including some on Blu-ray), it is absolutely spectacular, and very much in the vein of Planet Earth. This is, hands-down, the best nature documentary you're going to see this year. It appears that the press kit is a further reflection of the focus on new technology and obsession with quality that went into the making of Life, like Planet Earth before it.

The Good News

All of the good qualities of Planet Earth are back: top-notch photography, full HD, lots of slow-motion (2,000fps, according to some producer interviews), excellent editing, and in every episode some new creature you've never heard of, doing unbelievable (and often nearly unfilmable) things. I was often left wondering how particular shots were done -- but I began to ignore that as I got sucked into the drama of events unfolding on-camera. See, Life is about living creatures, while Planet Earth was nominally about habitats (although it then focused on the creatures that live in those places, and how they've adapted -- really, the same thing is going on here, but the conceit has shifted to be animal-focused rather than habitat-focused).

For Life, the producers have found all sorts of bizarre stuff -- toads that roll into a ball and jump off cliffs to avoid being eaten by giant spiders, fish that live in underwater/underground tunnels, komodo dragons that kill water buffalo, monkeys who use tools to crack nuts. It's awe-inspiring. Here's a clip from the Reptiles & Amphibians episode -- note that this isn't the balling-up toad I mentioned; that one is shown later in the episode (yes, they found two different types of toad who use different leaping-from-heights techniques to avoid death):

Another huge bit of good news is that the HD really, really matters here. I watched several episodes on DVD and thought, yeah, that looks really good -- but then I saw one on Blu-ray and was blown away. This material shines in HD, finally giving you a good reason to have that expensive HD cable package and fancy TV.

Also, the series is family-friendly, at least for kids who are old enough to withstand scenes of animals in danger and some "light carnage" in the wild. While there are scenes of animal courtship (especially fish and birds), as well as plenty of animals eating each other, in general I think this is very appropriate for family viewing. The producers definitely have you on the edge of your seat, wondering who lives and who dies. I won't ruin it by telling you what happens -- but I will say that yes, some animals do die on-camera.

The Bad News

Like Planet Earth, Life uses different narrators for the Discovery and BBC versions. The BBC version features David Attenborough, and the Discovery version featured Oprah Winfrey. (Planet Earth used Sigourney Weaver in the US.) There was a lot of controversy and moaning about this last time around -- why not just have one narrator for both markets? (And why not have that narrator be Attenborough?) Having watched Planet Earth with both narrators and Life with just Winfrey, I have to say that Attenborough is awesome, though Winfrey isn't bad. The narrator thing isn't a dealbreaker, though I know many fans wait until the Attenborough version is available on Blu-ray to purchase the series. (I did that for Planet Earth, and plan to do so again.)

The only other complaint I can muster is that some of the material is just your typical nature documentary -- but shot in HD by some of the best photographers in the world. It's hard to say this is really a fault, but you do sometimes get into a state of overload, having seen some absurdly amazing scene of animals doing something you never expected them to do (a good example is the dolphins who create a "mud ring" to catch fish) -- after that, anything would seem plain. But so far, all the episodes I've seen have featured multiple "holy crap" moments, which make them very much worth watching. So my point is: expect a mixture of the astounding and the merely excellent; the latter bits are when you can go get more snacks.


Life is exactly what I think it should be: a continuation of Planet Earth in style, material, and quality. Given that Planet Earth was incredibly beautiful and wildly popular, you've got eleven hours of quality programming here. Add that to your Planet Earth Blu-ray set, and you've got a heck of a way to spend your weekend.

To whet your appetite further, here's a video of the producers discussing various "firsts" in the series:

Life premieres this Sunday, March 21, at 8pm on Discovery in the US. Two episodes are shown back-to-back, and another two-hour block airs a week later. Check out the full schedule on Discovery's Life site. Life has already been shown on the BBC (late in 2009), so if you want more info on specific episodes, check out that link for Wikipedia's rundown on the BBC version.

John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
New Plankton Species Named After Sir David Attenborough Series Blue Planet
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia

At least 19 creatures, both living and extinct, have been named after iconic British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Now, for the first time, one of his documentary series will receive the same honor. As the BBC reports, a newly discovered phytoplankton shares its name with the award-winning BBC series Blue Planet.

The second half of the species' name, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, is Latin for "blue planet," likely making it the first creature to derive its name from a television program. The single-cell organisms are just thousandths of a millimeter wide, thinner than a human hair, but their massive blooms on the ocean's surface can be seen from space. Called coccolithophores, the plankton serve as a food source for various marine life and are a vital marker scientists use to gauge the effects of climate change on the sea. The plankton's discovery, by researchers at University College London (UCL) and institutions in Spain and Japan, is detailed in a paper [PDF] published in the Journal of Nannoplankton Research.

"They are an essential element in the whole cycle of oxygen production and carbon dioxide and all the rest of it, and you mess about with this sort of thing, and the echoes and the reverberations and the consequences extend throughout the atmosphere," Attenborough said while accepting the honor at UCL.

The Blue Planet premiered in 2001 with eight episodes, each dedicated to a different part of the world's oceans. The series' success inspired a sequel series, Blue Planet II, that debuted on the BBC last year.

[h/t BBC]

5 Ways You Do Complex Math in Your Head Without Realizing It

The one thing that people who love math and people who hate math tend to agree on is this: You're only really doing math if you sit down and write formal equations. This idea is so widely embraced that to suggest otherwise is "to start a fight," says Maria Droujkova, math educator and founder of Natural Math, a site for kids and parents who want to incorporate math into their daily lives. Mathematicians cherish their formal proofs, considering them the best expression of their profession, while the anti-math don't believe that much of the math they studied in school applies to "real life."

But in reality, "we do an awful lot of things in our daily lives that are profoundly mathematical, but that may not look that way on the surface," Christopher Danielson, a Minnesota-based math educator and author of a number of books, including Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies, tells Mental Floss. Our mathematical thinking includes not just algebra or geometry, but trigonometry, calculus, probability, statistics, and any of the at least 60 types [PDF] of math out there. Here are five examples.


Of all the maths, algebra seems to draw the most ire, with some people even writing entire books on why college students shouldn't have to endure it because, they claim, it holds the students back from graduating. But if you cook, you're likely doing algebra. When preparing a meal, you often have to think proportionally, and "reasoning with proportions is one of the cornerstones of algebraic thinking," Droujkova tells Mental Floss.

You're also thinking algebraically whenever you're adjusting a recipe, whether for a larger crowd or because you have to substitute or reduce ingredients. Say, for example, you want to make pancakes, but you only have two eggs left and the recipe calls for three. How much flour should you use when the original recipe calls for one cup? Since one cup is 8 ounces, you can figure this out using the following algebra equation: n/8 : 2/3.

algebraic equation illustrates adjustment of a recipe
Lucy Quintanilla

However, when thinking proportionally, you can just reason that since you have one-third less eggs, you should just use one-third less flour.

You're also doing that proportional thinking when you consider the cooking times of the various courses of your meal and plan accordingly so all the elements of your dinner are ready at the same time. For example, it will usually take three times as long to cook rice as it will a flattened chicken breast, so starting the rice first makes sense.

"People do mathematics in their own way," Droujkova says, "even if they cannot do it in a very formalized way."


woman enjoys listening to music in headphones

The making of music involves many different types of math, from algebra and geometry to group theory and pattern theory and beyond, and a number of mathematicians (including Pythagoras and Galileo) and musicians have connected the two disciplines (Stravinsky claimed that music is "something like mathematical thinking").

But simply listening to music can make you think mathematically too. When you recognize a piece of music, you are identifying a pattern of sound. Patterns are a fundamental part of math; the branch known as pattern theory is applied to everything from statistics to machine learning.

Danielson, who teaches kids about patterns in his math classes, says figuring out the structure of a pattern is vital for understanding math at higher levels, so music is a great gateway: "If you're thinking about how two songs have similar beats, or time signatures, or you're creating harmonies, you're working on the structure of a pattern and doing some really important mathematical thinking along the way."

So maybe you weren't doing math on paper if you were debating with your friends about whether Tom Petty was right to sue Sam Smith in 2015 over "Stay With Me" sounding a lot like "I Won't Back Down," but you were still thinking mathematically when you compared the songs. And that earworm you can't get out of your head? It follows a pattern: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, end.

When you recognize these kinds of patterns, you're also recognizing symmetry (which in a pop song tends to involve the chorus and the hook, because both repeat). Symmetry [PDF] is the focus of group theory, but it's also key to geometry, algebra, and many other maths.


six steps of crocheting a hyperbolic plane
Cheryl, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Droujkova, an avid crocheter, she says she is often intrigued by the very mathematical discussions fellow crafters have online about the best patterns for their projects, even if they will often insist they are awful at math or uninterested in it. And yet, such crafts cannot be done without geometric thinking: When you knit or crochet a hat, you're creating a half sphere, which follows a geometric formula.

Droujkova isn't the only math lover who has made the connection between geometry and crocheting. Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina found crocheting to be the perfect way to illustrate the geometry of a hyperbolic plane, or a surface that has a constant negative curvature, like a lettuce leaf. Hyperbolic geometry is also used in navigation apps, and explains why flat maps distort the size of landforms, making Greenland, for example, look far larger on most maps than it actually is.


people playing pool

If you play billiards, pool, or snooker, it's very likely that you are using trigonometric reasoning. Sinking a ball into a pocket by using another ball involves understanding not just how to measure angles by sight but triangulation, which is the cornerstone of trigonometry. (Triangulation is a surprisingly accurate way to measure distance. Long before powered flight was possible, surveyors used triangulation to measure the heights of mountains from their bases and were off by only a matter of feet.)

In a 2010 paper [PDF], Louisiana mathematician Rick Mabry studied the trigonometry (and basic calculus) of pool, focusing on the straight-in shot. In a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana, he scribbled equations on napkins for each shot, and he calculated the most difficult straight-in shot of all. Most experienced pool players would say it’s one where the target ball is halfway between the pocket and the cue ball. But that, according to Mabry’s equations, turned out not to be true. The hardest shot of all had a surprising feature: The distance from the cue ball to the pocket was exactly 1.618 times the distance from the target ball to the pocket. That number is the golden ratio, which is found everywhere in nature—and, apparently, on pool tables.

Do you need to consider the golden ratio when deciding where to place the cue ball? Nope, unless you want to prove a point, or set someone else up to lose. You're doing the trig automatically. The pool sharks at the bar must have known this, because someone threw away Mabry's math napkins.


tiled bathroom with shower stall

Many students don't get to calculus in high school, or even in college, but a cornerstone of that branch of math is optimization—or figuring out how to get the most precise use of a space or chunk of time.

Consider a home improvement project where you're confronted with tiling around something whose shape doesn't fit a geometric formula like a circle or rectangle, such as the asymmetric base of a toilet or freestanding sink. This is where the fundamental theorem of calculus—which can be used to calculate the precise area of an irregular object—comes in handy. When thinking about how those tiles will best fit around the curve of that sink or toilet, and how much of each tile needs to be cut off or added, you're employing the kind of reasoning done in a Riemann sum.

Riemann sums (named after a 19th-century German mathematician) are crucial to explaining integration in calculus, as tangible introductions to the more precise fundamental theorem. A graph of a Riemann sum shows how the area of a curve can be found by building rectangles along the x, or horizontal axis, first up to the curve, and then over it, and then averaging the distance between the over- and underlap to get a more precise measurement. 


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