Bringing Sexy Math
3:11pm, Mon. Mar. 12, 2012
“We came up with the idea of a treasure hunt,” said Hon. “It’s a classic idea. It’s been done lots of times. But normally when you think of a treasure hunt, it’s a lot of chance. Or it’s convoluted and only 12 people get into it.” To engage various ages and social groups while incorporating mathematics in an organic way, they published YouTube shorts and online games alongside their three-part TV show, which aired last July. To win the treasure, participants needed keys. They could find them embedded in the shows on the BBC, in three YouTube shorts, and in games online. In addition to a chance at the big treasure, site visitors also received a bonus prize, “the Ultimate Challenge” — an 84-page puzzle book, which you can still download today.
Hon stressed that the project’s success had largely to do with playing to each platform's strengths and not, for example, doing social media for the sake of social media. “One of the compliments of the show was that it had a lot of breadth,” said Hon. “One criticism was that it didn’t have a lot of depth.” To help teach the complicated scientific topics the show introduced, they posted Flash games. (You can play their most popular game, “Master of Mosaics,” which teaches about symmetry, here.)
They used this type of cross-platform “synergy” (his word) at all stages, introducing the project and its grand prize online by more or less tweeting out: “'We’re going to run this cool treasure hunt – who wants to get a mysterious postcard in the mail?'” said Hon. “We got a couple hundred people signed up.” The postcards had photos on the back, which were numbered. The people formed a Facebook group to assemble the image. They soon realized it made a shape, and fans created and posted their own 3D models predicting the prize, which was ultimately revealed in BBC News Magazine: a sculpture of nested silver and bronze platonic solids. Hon attributes the campaign’s success to its sincerity. “It wasn’t just to generate viral success,” said Hon. “It was to demonstrate that we were not just going to provide some trophy cup for the prize, but that we were really committed to exploring maths in nature.”