|Ivars Peterson's MathTrek|
April 6, 1998
Can you believe it: mathematics in the same company as the U.S. prime- time television shows Beverly Hills 90210, Spin City, The Nanny, and Star Trek: Voyager? That unusual juxtaposition will happen in coming weeks when the Public Broadcasting System airs the new miniseries Life by the Numbers.
Hosted and narrated by actor Danny Glover, the seven hour-long programs represent an effort to give mathematics a fresh public image -- as an exciting, empowering, playful, creative, and imaginative pursuit. That's a tall order for a discipline that many people automatically regard as dry, mechanical, and largely irrelevant to everyday concerns.
Vividly illustrated, the series covers a broad swath of mathematics and a wide range of activities. Mathematician Keith Devlin notes in his book based on the TV series, You will definitely discover that there is hardly any aspect of your life in which mathematics does not play a significant though generally hidden part.
I have a special interest in the series because I served on an advisory committee that helped the team of television producers responsible for Life by the Numbers formulate and refine the programs. In fact, I first heard of the idea of doing a major series about mathematics in 1992, when I met Boston-based TV producer Steve Lyons at a lively conference on art and mathematics at the State University of New York in Albany.
By the early 1990s, advances in computer graphics had brought to the public's attention such mathematical constructs as fractals and chaotic attractors, arousing a tremendous interest in these and other amazing forms. On the other hand, the widely read book Innumeracy by mathematic ian John Allen Paulos had highlighted the potentially serious consequences of shortcomings in the ability of people to understand mathematics and apply it in everyday situations.
Fascinated by the newly emerging visual face of mathematics and captivated by the challenge of going beyond pretty pictures to convey how mathematics works, Lyons was at the Albany conference to learn firsthand about the creative side of mathematics and what its practitioners actually do.
Within a few years, that vision developed into a series concept with the working title One, Two, Three. . . Infinity, echoing the title of a famous book by physicist George Gamow. Based at WQED in Pittsburgh and led by executive producer Greg Andorfer, who had been involved in the Cosmos TV series with Carl Sagan, the project gradually took shape. The National Science Foundation provided the initial funding for the exploratory phase.
The first advisory committee meeting brought together a varied lot: TV people, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, educators, a journalist or two, and assorted others. The two days of discussion covered a wide range of issues. There was a consensus that it was important to get across the idea that mathematics is much more than just numbers -- that the emphasis should be on patterns of thought.
Everyone also brought along their pet ideas to suggest as program topics. An engineer wanted a program on structures; a statistician, something on polling; an economist, examples from game theory. Having just completed my book Newton's Clock, I advocated an episode devoted to the way astronomical questions have helped drive mathematical developments since ancient times.
It quickly became clear that there was no shortage of material to illustrate how mathematics pervades everyday life. The choice of which topics and how to present them, however, was a trickier question. The assembled TV producers, none with a mathematical background, had their own ideas about what would make a stirring, involving, appealing story. Some of the mathematicians were skeptical that such storytelling could be done without completely burying the mathematics. But it was certainly worth trying, everyone agreed.
About a year later, preliminary versions (rough cuts) of several episodes were ready, and the advisory committee met again to review the efforts. What we saw were videos with abrupt transitions, missing footage, stilted narration, and no background music. Nonetheless, even at this early stage, some of the visual sequences were stunning and memorable. That was a tribute to the talent of the television producers and their associates, who were determined to do the best possible job despite being uncomfortable with the mathematics or even intimidated by it.
I particularly enjoyed viewing segments that featured people about whom I had written in Science News. I rely mainly on telephone interviews and journal articles to glean the material I need, so I rarely meet the people I write about or see them at work. The videos brought mathematics to life in a special way for me.
One thing that I found disconcerting was the large number of shots that showed someone pecking away at a keyboard while staring intently at a computer screen. Computers are certainly commonplace tools in mathematical research and elsewhere, but no amount of television wizardry can make that aspect of modern life exciting to watch. It was a great relief, at one point, to see someone actually sketching a diagram on a pad of paper.
Overall, it was an encouraging start, though an enormous amount of work remained to be done. At the top of the list was the task of finding sponsors and raising the funds needed to complete the series. Meanwhile, episodes were reworked, smoothed out, and repeatedly reviewed. Some topics were dropped, points of view changed, countless hours of interviews recorded, illustrations and animations added to clarify crucial points.
The series title was changed to the cryptic M: The Invisible Universe (putting math in the title explicitly was judged to be too risky in the business of attracting a large audience) and finally to the innocuous Life by the Numbers (mathematics in the guise of a sugar-coated pill).
The resulting seven-part series -- the work of producers David Elisco, Joe Seamans, Gina Catanzarite, and Mary Rawson -- looks at mathematics and information; probability, chance, and statistics; mathematics for exploring the cosmos; patterns of nature; mathematical visualization; sports; and teaching mathematics.
Tracking the making of the series was a fascinating experience that gave me a glimpse of the huge collaborative effort required to put together a television production and of the many conflicting and competing interests and elements that must somehow be reconciled. I greatly admired the spirit of adventure displayed by the series producers, who dared venture into strange lands to capture their quarry.
I haven't viewed the final results yet. My last look at various episodes occurred nearly a year ago, and there were many things that still required fixing. I'm eager to see how the story ends.
So, mathematics has made it into prime-time television I, for one, will be watching every episode.
Copyright 1998 by Ivars Peterson
Devlin, K. 1998. Life by the Numbers. New York: Wiley.
Paulos, J.A. 1988. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. New York: Hill and Wang.
Peterson, I. 1998. The Mathematical Tourist: New and Updated Snapshots of Modern Mathematics. New York: W.H. Freeman.
______. 1998. The Jungles of Randomness: A Mathematical Safari. New York: Wiley.
______. 1993. Newton's Clock: Chaos in the Solar System. New York: Wiley.
______. 1992. Forging links between mathematics and art. Science News 141(June 20):404.
______. 1990. Islands of Truth: A Mathematical Mystery Cruise. New York: W.H. Freeman.
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