Devlin's Angle

April 1998

Mathematics: As Seen on TV

Dull, boring, rigid, uncreative, lifeless, irrelevant. Those are some of the adjectives I typically get from my students at the start of my regular semester-long math class for non-science majors. It could be worse: Their answers could have been in response to a request to describe me as their instructor, rather than to give me adjectives that they think apply to mathematics. But it's still disappointing. As I encounter each year's crop of new arts and humanities majors, I realize that C. P. Snow's two cultures are as far apart as they were when Snow coined the term over forty years ago.

Many of the students in my class will go on to be managers, broadcasters, newspaper and magazine editors, and lawyers. Some will become local, state, or even national politicians. And a great many will become teachers. Quite frankly, I don't mind if they can't do much math. But I mind a lot if, when they go on to occupy influential roles in society, they are almost totally ignorant of what mathematics is and the major -- though generally hidden -- role it plays in present-day life.

For years, I have longed to have at my disposal the kind of glossy videotapes that my colleagues in botany, zoology, physics, and astronomy can show to their non-science majors classes. Now, at last, that is about to change. On April 8, PBS broadcasts the first espisode of the new, six-part television documentary series Life By The Numbers. Funded by the National Science Foundation and Texas Instruments, the main goal of the series, according to senior producer David Elisco, is "to counter two thousand years of bad press for mathematics."

Though mathematics is the topic, the series does not set out to teach math, nor even to exhort people to learn math. Rather, the goal is to show just how much the world in which we live has become dominated by mathematics. It shows that mathematics provides us with a pair of eyes through which we can see what would otherwise be invisible, how it helps athletes win Olympic gold medals, how it is used in the modern movie industry, and how it provides a medium for creative artists to express the ideas produced in their imagination.

By giving educators the rights to tape the series off the air and use it freely in the classroom for up to six years, the producers and their supporters hope that teachers will use it as an educational resource. Educational use is supported by the provision of various educational supplements: activity packs, a companion book, and an interactive web site.

In order to achieve a broad educational impact, each of the series' six episodes is split into five or six segments, having appeal to different age groups. Though middle and high school students are the main educational target, the producers went to some lengths to include material suitable for the college and university market. Not the math and science majors. Though they will probably enjoy watching the series, and will undoubtedly learn something from it, television is a poor medium for teaching advanced mathematics. For the non science majors, however, Life By The Numbers offers the college or university professor a useful resource.

To my mind, if a college or university demands of its non-science students that they take a single math course, the main goal of that course should be to create an awareness of the role played by mathematics in contemporary society. Our arts and humanities graduates should realize that we are living in a mathematical universe, a world shaped, and in large part controlled, by mathematics. They should know that, when we listen to music coming from a CD player, when we speak to each other on the telephone, when we get on a bus or fly in an airplane, when we attend a major sporting event, when we go to the movies or the theater, when we go into hospital or draw money out of the bank, when we read the weather forecast, or when we watch TV or listen to the radio, we are dependent on mathematics, much of it highly sophisticated. They should know that not only for their own enrichment and empowerment, but also because, throughout their adult lives, they will be called on to make decisions that, directly or indirectly, influence the support society gives to mathematics research and education.

The challenge facing the professor who wants to achieve this (currently lofty) goal is that most of those arts and humanities students whose somewhat apprehensive faces look back at us at the start of each semester have already formed a pretty solid impression of what mathematics is like: dull, boring, rigid, uncreative, lifeless, irrelevant -- the adjectives I began with.

Though I get pilloried by many of my colleagues every time I say it, it seems to me as obvious as 1+1=2 that, in a single semester, I haven't a ghost of a chance of changing such views by forcing my students through yet another repeat of the kinds of math classes they sat through in several years of high school.

Far better, surely, to take the class on a journey that shows them how mathematics relates to, and is used in, various aspects of everyday life. Forget the familiar "problem solving" aspect of mathematics. Show them instead that it is a powerful conceptual framework for understanding the world we live in.

For instance, to catch the attention of the English majors, I often show my students how Noam Chomsky used mathematics to "see" and describe the abstract patterns of words that we recognize as a grammatical sentence.

With tapes of series Life By The Numbers series available, I am at last able to do what my colleagues in the natural and life sciences do in their non-majors classes: I am no longer restricted to simply telling. I can show as well.

Of course, for many students -- and for many faculty for that matter -- the utility of mathematics does not light a spark of interest. This is where Life By The Numbers delivers far more than you might expect. In particular, the very first episode shows how, increasingly, mathematics is being used as a creative medium, akin to the artist's canvas and paint, the sculptor's stone or bronze, or the novelist's words. This is an aspect of mathematics that we should emphasize far more, I believe. Though the "traditional" applications of mathematics may not catch the attention of the students and professors in the Faculty of Arts, human artistic creativity certainly does. Let's take advantage of that interest.

For example, the very first episode opens with a profile of Doug Trumbull, the special effects wizard behind movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These days, Trumbull spends a lot of his time developing a new kind of cinematic experience: immersion theater, where in addition to seeing a screen and hearing sound, the audience experiences motion. As Trumbull says in the first episode, in order to translate his initial idea to a theatrical reality, he relies on mathematics. It is through mathematics that the idea becomes a blueprint -- a specification -- for a ride.

Other segments from the first episode deal with the theory of perspective in painting, with the geometrically inspired work of the artist Tony Robbin, and with the immersive digital art of Macos Novak.

Dull, boring, rigid, uncreative, lifeless, irrelevant? Only if you find life that way.

Keith Devlin

Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.
Keith Devlin ( is Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, in Moraga, California, and a Senior Researcher at Stanford University. He has just finished work on a book to accompany a six-part television series, Life By the Numbers, which will be broadcast nationwide on PBS in early April. The book, which has the same title as the television series, will be published at the same time by John Wiley and Sons. Keith Devlin