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Topic: Life by the Numbers -- A Review
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Life by the Numbers -- A Review
Posted: Sep 28, 1998 10:49 PM
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[Note: From a colleague on the East Coast --]

Life By The Numbers

A Review by Colm Mulcahy

Life by the Numbers is the overall title for a series of TV programs on
mathematics produced by WQED Pittsburgh with support from a number of
foundations and corporations. The first program in the series was shown on
PBS on April 8. Subsequent programs were transmitted to affiliate stations
which were free to schedule them at any time; many have delayed showing
them until June. The series has a supporting web page, and an accompanying
book by Keith Devlin. The set of video tapes is for sale; call
1-800-274-2307 for more information.

Our reviewer is Colm Mulcahy, from the mathematics department at Spelman
College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Keith Devlin, who was a consultant for the Life by the Numbers series, has
some wise words for those who fear complexity in mathematics: "To most
people, mathematics makes the world more complicated, it doesn't do that!
Math makes the world more simple! Mathematicians are simplistic creatures.
We look at the world in the simplest possible way. We look at it in such a
simple way that the only way of capturing the simplicity is with symbols,
lines, nodes, edges of graphs. We strip away the complexity!"
Unfortunately, this wonderful observation is tucked away at the end of the
sixth program of this seven part PBS series.

A series about mathematics on public television is a very brave undertaking
in an age where too many people associate the subject with trauma in high
school (the fear of "calculus" in particular seems to be North American).
Is there a mathematician in the USA who hasn't been asked what he or she
does at a party, only to have their answer greeted with "Oh, math was
always my worst subject in school"? A highly educated society whose members
can still take pride in trotting out that old cliché is going to be
somewhat resistant to attempts to communicate mathematics to it. The good
news is that Life By The Numbers may change that, for those lucky enough to
see the shows.

The subtitle of this series, "math like you've never seen it before", is a
good one, because it applies just as much to those of us in the profession
as it does to the average non-specialist viewer. These TV programs are
about how mathematics is used all around us, often in conjunction with
physics and engineering, in science, medicine, industry, commerce, sports,
art and entertainment. The approach taken is fresh, and not all of these
manifestations of applied mathematics will be familiar to the very people
who are entrusted with getting students to learn mathematics - those of us
who teach. That's a good enough reason for us to watch the series: too
often we lose sight of the fact that we are an exclusive minority, the few
survivors of a long, difficult and often unnatural process of learning (in
graduate school) and training (on the job), which leaves many talented but
bewildered people in its wake, and inevitably has the rest of us convinced
that that if anybody knows what mathematics is and what it's good for, we
do. Don't be so sure!

While an increased appreciation for the beauty of mathematics does come
with advanced learning, and may serve as a primary motivation for why we do
what we do, that subtlety is usually lost on the rest of the population.
Here, the relevant question is: Do we have a real appreciation of the range
of application of mathematics in the world around us today? Do some of us
feel that such applications are suspect because they are lacking in
"purity", or are not founded on firm theoretical bases? Such reservations
would certainly color our reactions to the content and slant of this

An informal email survey suggests that some mathematicians' responses to
early episodes of Life By The Numbers were lukewarm: could this be because
there is very little overlap between the series and what goes on it our
classrooms? And very few mathematicians in evidence? Perhaps, but it would
be a mistake to view the absence of calculus, vector spaces and groups from
these innovative programs as evidence of a lack of depth or relevance. We
get our chance to convert people to mathematics every time we enter a
classroom, with the usual mixed results. As a general rule, Mathematics is
the last topic to which the medium of television gravitates, and now that
PBS is trying to get the masses hooked, stressing the role of mathematics
as a tool, the least we can do is give the series a fair hearing and try to
judge it on its own merits.

One of the principal messages of Life By The Numbers is that mathematics
permeates virtually all of our lives, and that people can be motivated to
learn mathematics via things they find interesting, be that special effects
in movies and educational films, the miracle of the internet, the history
of art, the wonders of cosmology, the pitfalls of gambling, sports
analysis, building better boats, map making, flight simulation, national
surveys, wearable computers, modelling international economies, DNA, life
insurance, playing chess on the surface of a doughnut, or the chances of
being attacked by giant locusts!

The inescapable conclusion, which is so obvious to those with training in
the field but still surprises most otherwise well educated people in the
world, is that mathematics is not dead! For instance, it is the invisible
fuel that drives much of this information age: without recent advances in
the application of mathematics, there would be no fast cheap phone network
encircling the globe, no fax, television, email, no MAA Online.

The seven parts are titled: "Seeing Is Believing" (special effects), "The
Numbers Game" (sports), "Patterns Of Nature" (biology), "Chances Of A
Lifetime" (probability), "Shape Of The World" (exploration), "A New Age"
(information age) and "Making A Difference" (education). The last, which
this writer has not yet seen, is the only one to consider the teaching of
mathematics. Unfortunately, many PBS affiliates have chosen to air only the
first program, and others haven't aired any. A PBS station in Georgia
defended their decision not to bring this series to the state whose
students standardized mathematics scores are ranked among the lowest in the
nation by claiming that the programs were "too esoteric". So much for
education and trying to make a difference.

The series is presented by actor Danny Glover, who puts his dramatic skills
to good use, introducing each program with an inviting tease, and narrating
most of what follows. Almost no formulas are presented, none are dwelled
on, and intuitive understanding, especially with visual cues, is emphasized
throughout. Typically, each show highlights a half dozen related topics,
with key practitioners profiled in an engaging fashion.

"Seeing Is Believing" kicks the series off, with state-of-the-art immersive
theme park movies and the 15th century Italian breakthroughs in perspective
drawing and art. It makes the point that the ability to copy precise
pictures of mechanical devices changed the way the previously oral
tradition of the European master/apprentice guild system worked, making
technology available to a much wider audience and paving the way for the
industrial revolution. Donna Cox (of the University of Illinois) shows how
the National Center for Supercomputing

Applications generates simulations of colliding galaxies and how artists'
sketches are turned into flashy and hopefully accurate IMAX films. Cox also
works with George Francis (University of Illinois) to help animate
complicated topological shapes on computer screens, which leads into a
segment on "invisible realities". Tom Banchoff (Brown University) discusses
the challenge of trying to visualize 4-dimensional space, in particular the
hypercube. He makes the excellent point that even 3-dimensional objects,
such as his office building, can never be taken in all at once by the human
eye, we piece it together in our minds from many different 2-dimensional
experiences of it. (One might add that there is a further reduction here:
we've just explained this in a linear, 1-dimensional sentence!).
Unfortunately, this first program in the series loses focus towards at the
end, with some overly long segments featuring guests who make portentous
(and usually meaningless) statements about mathematics.

The topics in "The Numbers Game" include: the competitive edge that can be
gained in American football by statistically analyzing playback videos, how
tennis has changed in the last 50 years through engineering analysis, how
computer aided geometric design modeling is involved in building winning
boats for the America's Cup, the role of biomechanics in enabling American
ice-skaters to master the once undreamed of triple axle jump, and how to
fine-tune training for the extraordinarily challenging triathalon.

"Patterns of Nature" gets off on a good footing by explaining how giant
locusts and other staples of horror movies are simply not possible, as the
weight/size ratios would not be sustainable, then moves on to consider how
leopards get their spots, the relationship between DNA and knots (featuring
De Witt Sumners of Florida State University), the ever-popular fractals,
and the challenges of designing artificial life in computers.

"Chances Of A Lifetime" brings to the screen some more familiar material
related to probability and statistics, often using a historical
perspective: the origins of the subject in gambling, casino gambling today,
the use of statistics in health issues (the Salk vaccine trail), baseball
statistics, insurance and actuarial concerns. Did you know you can insure
all (well, most) aspects of your wedding?!

The "Shape Of The World" episode starts with the ancient role of geometry
in navigation and mapmaking, and proceeds to flight simulators, the mapping
of 5000 sq. miles of the mountainous Yukon terrain for the first time in
the 1930s (using photogrammetry), the work of the National Image and
Mapping Agency (which now has accurate maps of 90% of the earth's land
surface), the ongoing project of mapping the earth's ocean's floors, and
the recent triumph of the Global Positioning System, which uses satellite
distances rather than angles to tell us exactly where we are. But there's
more! Robert Osserman (MSRI/Stanford) introduces the idea of a curved
universe, and Jeff Weeks takes up the tale with a charming and highly
effective segment (featuring his young son Adam) on the
possible shapes of space. Geometry Center video excerpts and torus chess
demonstrations help to make the point.

"A New Age" concerns the information revolution, and hooks the viewer early
on with discussion of software agents (aka digital butlers), wearable
computers, the role of Boolean algebra in the design of computers, Bill
Massey (Lucent Technology) on queueing theory, and Nate Dean (Bell Labs) on
data mining - with the amusing conclusion that if you want to run a grocery
store, put bananas on display everywhere! Graciela Chichilninsky (Columbia
University) models economies, and argues convincingly that mathematics is
to the information age what fossil fuels were to the industrial revolution.
Danny Glover wraps things up by pointing out that: "Far from being a dry
and boring subject, mathematics is a powerful tool we can use to create a
new era, a new world that begins with our ability to imagine and dream."

Throughout the series there is a conscious effort to downplay "the geek
factor" and stress the human element and the excitement quotient. Fancy
graphics are used, in moderation. Clever production tricks keep the series
lively, such as occasional glimpses of personal lives or amusing clips from
old movies, and overall the editing is seamless. While some might question
the real value of some of the applications of mathematics presented here,
it's a small price to pay for the overall good to our profession these
shows could do. If anything, there is too much material per show, it's hard
to absorb it all in one sitting. That's not such a bad complaint, however,
and all the more reason to order this series on videotape for your library.
This is a series that deserves to be widely seen. If your local PBS station
has been slow to bring it to your TV screen, there is still time to try to
twist their arm.

MAA Online is edited by Fernando Q. Gouvêa

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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