“Life by the Numbers” tv series

Cover of the official companion book

I just discovered that the award-winning Life by the Numbers PBS television series, first broadcast nationally in 1998, is now available online. I was a lead advisor on the series (and appeared in a couple of episodes), and wrote the official, full-color companion book, by the same title.

That series, produced by WQED in Pittsburgh with a big budget from NSF, private foundations, and corporations, was one of my inspirations for, and a forerunner to, SUMOP.

A comprehensive review of the series, which includes a synopsis of each episode, written by mathematician Colm Mulcahy, was published by the Mathematical Association of America shortly after the series first aired.

In the years immediately following the series’ release, I used clips from the series in my college courses for liberal arts majors, since the six episodes ranged over a wide variety of different walks of life and society. (A seventh episode was aimed at teachers. I had no role in that; my focus on mathematics education did not develop until 2001, when I was invited to serve on the National Academies’ Mathematical Sciences Education Board.) Though the content was cutting edge in 1996-7, when we were making the series, each year about 10% of the six hours of content became out of date, a dramatic illustration of the rapid pace at which mathematics and its applications develop in the present era.

To some extent then, the series (and my companion book) can be regarded as mostly of historical interest. But on another level, they remain totally current. For what they show is the way mathematics is crucially relevant to society (though not how the mathematical work is actually carried out today, as is indicated in many of the materials on this site). For that reason, Life by the Numbers is in fact as topical now as it was back in 1998.

SUMOP is intended to provide an updated version of Life by the Numbers (with Jo Boaler’s youcubed already providing an updated version of the, separately funded, seventh episode of the series), that reflects the major technological changes that have occurred in the intervening two decades. In fact, a further illustration of the dramatic changes resulting from the new technology tools and platforms available today, is the fact that a small team working with a low budget (like SUMOP) can now do what required a large television company, a nationwide television network, and a budget of several millions of dollars, twenty-five years ago.

The one thing you won’t find on SUMOP is movie star Danny Glover, who hosted the original series. [Hmm. Let me look into that … I recall that he did Life by the Numbers for the mandated minimum actors union fee.]