Devlin's Angle

April 1999

What's Going On During Mathematics Awareness Month

Even in mathematics, inflation seems to take its toll, and what used to be Mathematics Awareness Week (MAW) has become -- for this year at least -- Mathematics Awareness Month (MAM), lasting for the whole of April.

MAM is organized by the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM), which represents the three major organizations for professional mathematicians: The American Mathematical Society, which focuses on mathematical research, the Mathematical Association of America, whose main interest is university mathematics education, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, which concentrates on the uses of mathematics in industry. Altogether, the three societies represent about 100,000 professional mathematicians, mostly in the US, although all three organizations have overseas members.

The JPBM organized its first Mathematics Awareness Week back in April of 1991. The motivation was to try to counteract many years of bad press for mathematics. There was a feeling that the major news media covered stories about advances in physics, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, and all the other sciences, but the only time math made the news was when another report came out saying how poorly American schoolchildren performed in math compared with other nations. The JPBM hired a Washington PR firm to put together a campaign to try to raise public awareness of mathematics, and the first Mathematics Awareness Week was set up as part of that campaign.

That proved to be a success, and as a result there has been a Mathematics Awareness Week every spring since then. Each one has had a special theme. In 1992 the theme was mathematics and the environment; in 1993 mathematics and manufacturing; in 1994 mathematics and medicine; in 1995 mathematics and symmetry; in 1996 uses of mathematics in decision making; in 1997 mathematics and the Internet; and last year the theme was mathematics and imaging -- for example, how mathematicians use Hollywood film-making techniques to represent complex data in a visual form that is easy to understand.

This year's theme is mathematics and biology. Two important examples of how mathematics is used in biology are: in developing computer models of the human heart, which are helping us to understand how the heart works and, more importantly, how it goes wrong, and the use of a branch of mathematics called knot theory to help us to understand how viruses attack the human body.

These examples show why mathematicians think that it's important to raise public awareness of mathematics. After all, much mathematical research depends on public funding. It's important work, but most of it is very invisible, and hard for a non expert to understand, so it doesn't make the news very often. Mathematics Awareness Week -- or this year Mathematics Awareness Month -- is a deliberately created opportunity to say, "Hey look folks, most of the time you don't know we're here, and what we do usually doesn't look very sexy, but it's important stuff. Indeed, one day your life may depend on what we do."

For the most part, all MAM activities are organized at a local level, by mathematicians at colleges, universities, and occasionally businesses and high schools all over the country. At the national level, the JPBM produces a poster that local organizations can display, sends out press releases to all the major national and regional news outlets, and prepares some background materials on the annual theme that it posts on its web site, hosted by Swarthmore College.

Local groups are free to do whatever they want. The idea is to organize events that give schoolchildren and students some idea of what mathematics is all about, and, if possible, might catch the attention of local media. Local groups are encouraged to develop activities that connect to the main theme, but they don't have to.

In preparation for a piece on MAM for National Public Radio, I arranged for a message to be sent out to all local MAA liaisons on the MAA's listserve, asking people to let me know what they were up to. Here is a sample of what I received back.

Students at Albion College in Michigan are building a three-dimensional fractal out of 66,048 business cards. (There's a regularly updated photo of the object as it is being constructed on the Albion college web site.) What's the connection with biology? you ask. Well, MAM activities don't have to be directly connected to the main theme, and many are not. In this case, there is a link of sorts, in that there has been some interesting work using three-dimensional fractals to model the behavior of the human heart.

Folks at Pellissipi State Technical College in Knoxville, Tennessee, are organizing a contest for local middle school pupils to see who can design and build the best egg launching device. The idea is to build a craft that launches an egg and carries it the furthest, bringing it back to land without breaking. Biology? Well, it involves eggs!

Faculty and students at Marshall University in West Virginia are working with local elementary schools to build a Mars Rover out of Lego, that will have an on-board camera and be controlled from anywhere in the world over the Internet. The connection with biology is that essentially the same mathematics is required to investigate the interior of the human body using a laproscope.

The University of California at Davis is organizing an open day when members of the public can come along and try their hands at a whole range of mathematical puzzles.

Kennesaw State University in Georgia are organizing a day-long Mathematics Rodeo, where sixth, seventh and eighth grade students from local schools competed in various mathematical games, puzzles and challenges.

Many places organize pizza evenings where they show mathematics related videos, such as the PBS Nova documentary about the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, another one about the National Security Agency, some of the amazing computer-generated videos produced by the Geometry Center in Minneapolis, the PBS series Life by the Numbers, and many others. (I'm sure that some groups show the movies Good Will Hunting or Pi as well.)

Or there are evening public lectures about the mathematics of identification numbers such as driving license numbers, the mathematics of music, mathematics and architecture, logical puzzles, and more.

I heard of a professional psychologist who is organizing some special workshops to help people overcome math phobia.

There's a lot going on in Kansas. The month began when the governor of the state declared April to be officially Mathematics Awareness Month in the State.

The University of Kansas is organizing a number of workshops for K-12 schoolchildren. Topics include: Math & Sea Shells, where students will see how to use mathematics to model patterns of sea shells on a computer; Fibonacci Numbers in Nature; The Mathematics of Bacteria and Viruses; The Mathematics of Population Dynamics; Mathematics and the Environment; and Mathematics and Epilepsy Research -- this last one being presented by one of the university's Ph.D. graduates, who, with a doctor from the KU Medical Center, has made a breakthrough in predicting epilepsy seizures.

They are also organizing contests for local K-4 schoolchildren designed around the theme "How Math and Biology Meet in Your Backyard". One of those activities is to measure roly-polies to find their area when they are rolled up and comparing the answers to the area of body when they are stretched out. The students have been asked to use their data to see how much a roly-poly grows over a span of time. Apparently one enterprising seven-year old has found creative ways to keep the roly-polies laying still. As a result he has measured hundreds of roly-polies. (I don't have any more detail, and I'm not sure I want to know!)

Among a whole series of Mathematics Awareness Month public lectures at the University of Kansas is one titled "Why Are Birds Blue? Mathematics and the Biophysics of Structural Colors in Birds."

The University of Arizona is another institution that is really going to town this year. First, a member of the mathematics faculty and a USDA entomologist are working with a team of students at the University and teachers at Tucson High School to investigate mathematical models of honey bee populations. The results they produce will be used by the students at the Native American Summer Institute, who maintain an apiary. My informant at the University of Arizona tells me that, sadly, they are unlikely to harvest their first honey until after Math Awareness Month has finished, but they hope that the use of the mathematics will lead to a bumper harvest. (See their website for more details.) In addition to the bee study, the University of Arizona Mathematics Department is launching a series of websites dealing with the kinetics of pharmaceuticals, blood flow, flour beetle dynamics, and the cyclic behavior of mammal populations in the extreme north of Canada. As part of the official launch of the website, local high school students will be invited to visit the university's biology labs where mathematics play a significant role in the labs' research activities.

They are also putting on a public lecture on the mathematics of heart rhythms, a film festival, and a whole host of other events.

And that's just a sample of the kind of activities that are going on around the nation throughout April. Given the brief -- and generally misleading -- exposure most people have to mathematics at school, raising the public awareness of mathematics will always be an uphill battle. But if you believe, as I do, that one of the main reasons why our country's schoolchildren consistently perform poorly in international comparisons of mathematical ability is the attitude toward mathematics they pick up from society, then it's a battle we should engage in.

- Keith Devlin


The NPR interview referred to in the article was broadcast on April 17, but the part in which Devlin discussed specific Mathematics Awareness Month activities was cut during the editing process. Click here to listen to the interview. (This requires that your computer has RealAudio installed.)
Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.
Keith Devlin ( devlin@stmarys-ca.edu) is Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, in Moraga, California, and a Senior Researcher at Stanford University. He worked on the "public awareness of mathematics" PBS television series Life by the Numbers and was the author of the official companion book of the same title, published in hardback in 1998 by John Wiley, and released in paperback later this month by the same publisher.