Bringing Sexy Math

Cracking the Creating the Code panel

Let's just keep things platonic.
Let's just keep things platonic. (image courtesy of

In Saturday's Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary Convergence panel, Adrian Hon (CEO/co-founder of Six to Start) explained how his game company and the BBC got the masses excited about math. (See what I did there?) The answer: a multimedia treasure hunt using TV, Web, and social media.

The BBC Two reached out to Professor Marcus du Sautoy about a show on mathematics in nature, but there was some concern around popularity. “[The Code] is about math, which is not a sexy topic – for a lot of people anyway,” said Hon. “And then it’s also on BBC Two, which is the BBC’s second flagship channel. It’s not the sexiest of channels. And then you have Marcus. He’s a really great guy and very smart guy, but in all honesty he is not the person you would have chosen to reach a younger or female audience.” The social implications of marketing aside, suffice it to say the team estimated that a traditional TV series on math would reach about 1-2 million males aged 55.

“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.”

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SXSW, Adrian Hon, Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary, Marcus du Sautoy

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