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Math on PBS

One doesn't often see serious treatments of mathematics on television, so it's worth noting that one such is coming up soon. Beginning this April, PBS will be airing an important new series on mathematics, entitled Life by the Numbers. We reproduce below an article by Keith Devlin describing the series, which appeared in a recent issue of FOCUS, the MAA's print newsletter.

Life by the Numbers is also the topic of Ivars Peterson's MathTrek for April 6, and of the April edition Devlin's Angle.

As a complement to the programs, a Life by the Numbers web site has been created. It contains lots of supporting information, ideas for teachers, and links to other mathematics-related sites.

These programs are important, and deserve the support of the mathematics community. The first program aired on Wednesday, April 8, 1998, at 8:00 pm. Note, however, that PBS programs are scheduled independently by local PBS affiliates. Contact your local stations to confirm dates and times.


The first episode of Life by the Numbers, highlighting the links between geometry and art, aired yesterday, April 8, on many PBS stations. We will have a review on MAA Online soon!

Unfortunately, many stations seem to have decided either to not show the remaining six shows or to delay them to June. Watch this space for more information about this unfortunate development... and call up your local PBS station to find out!


This spring, PBS stations across the nation will broadcast a six part documentary series on mathematics. Over five years in the making, Life by the Numbers is produced by WQED in Pittsburgh, with major support from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the exclusive corporate support of Texas Instruments.

The very significant level of funding has enabled the producers to go to considerable length to make the maximum possible use of modern television technology to make the series one of the most visually stunning and exciting television science series ever. The intention is for the series to make as great an impact on the general public as the late Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

I have been involved in the project for the last three years as one of many technical consultants. When I was asked if I could help shape the series, my first question to the producer was "What is the purpose of the series?" He replied, "To overcome two thousand years of bad press for mathematics." I was hooked at once.

The producers did not set out to teach any mathematics. The aim was to inform people of the true nature of mathematics and the range of important but generally hidden roles mathematics plays in various aspects of our lives. The six one-hour episodes include segments on the uses of mathematics in sports, entertainment, communications, global economics, local politics, medical research, cartography, and oceanography. Some of the mathematics referred to is fairly simple; other segments take you to the frontiers of deep, abstract mathematics.

To ensure that the series captures as large an audience as possible, the production team use the latest in television technology. Movie star Danny Glover is the host. Incidental music was specially commissioned for the series.

Most university mathematicians to whom I have shown previews have loved it. But some have not, saying they feel it does not provide enough detail of the mathematics. I have always replied that it was not intended to do the mathematics. The over riding goal was to reach out to the millions of people, of all ages, who think they hate mathematics and, even worse, think it has no relevance to their lives. No one who watches the series will ever again think that!

While the television series itself is designed to fit the "inform and entertain" mold of broadcast television, everyone involved in its production recognized the enormous education potential as an instructional resource around which teachers can build classes. Educators will be permitted to tape the series off air and use it in their classrooms. (Boxed sets will also be available for purchase.) Teacher packs will be available to provide ideas for ways to use the programs with K-12 students of different ages. A web site is currently under development. I have written a fully-illustrated (stand alone) book to accompany the series. Published by John Wiley, the Life by the Numbers book will go on sale in ordinary bookstores at broadcast time.

Finally, after the six episodes have aired, a separate, seventh program will examine mathematics education.

The most likely broadcast time is Sunday evening, starting in April or May. As always with television broadcasts, if you want to catch the entire series, you should check your local listings to see when the series will be shown in your area.


Keith Devlin is Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California and a former editor of FOCUS.


MAA Online is edited by Fernando Q. Gouvêa
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News Date: 
Thursday, April 9, 1998

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