Pacioli’s “Summa” in San Francisco

Setting up to give the talk under the watchful eye of Picasso

On April 24, SUMOP visited San Francisco’s new arts complex in the old dockland area to give a short talk about the background and importance of Luca Pacioli’s 1494 book Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita. The occasion was a public showing of one of the few remaining first edition copies of the book by Christie’s, who are auctioning the book in New York in June. Giving a talk with a life-sized painting of Picasso behind me and original paintings by Renoir and Monet to my left (the total estimated value of all three at auction is $27M) was a new experience for me.

But I got an even greater thrill from spending a few moments before the event taking a close look at the book that initiated the modern commercial world by providing business leaders and financiers with the modern accounting methods necessary to run large organizations. Without the methods described in Pacioli’s book (which Christie’s expects to fetch between $1M and $1.5M), there would not be a financial system to give those paintings their much greater financial value. (Clearly, while I share with many the appreciation of fine art, the value I put on brilliant mathematical innovations is not mainstream.)

For a greatly expanded, written version of my talk, see the forthcoming May 1 issue of my regular Devlin’s Angle commentary for the Mathematical Association of America. (The April 1 post had a preview of the Christie’s event.)

Here are a few photos from the event. Two of the pictures show me examining one of the examples of double-entry bookkeeping in the textbook that first taught that method to the world.

“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.]

Game-based learning – a success story

We teachers love it when we hear about our successes. For me, the latest example was a tweet I saw earlier today pointing to a blog post referring to a talk I had given at Tartu University in Estonia back in 2012. Seems I planted a seed there that, over time, grew into something of real value.

At least for those of us in the STEM disciplines, choosing a career of scholarship and teaching means foregoing the far greater financial rewards that are all but guaranteed in the commercial world. But the rewards are more than worth it.

That urge to try to help develop minds, and hence change lives for the better, is what made me want to start this Mathematics Outreach Project after I retired from my full-time role at Stanford.

SUMOP on Radio New Zealand

Being in New Zealand as a Steelye Fellow in Mathematics at the University of Auckland (see previous post), Radio New Zealand invited me on to their popular Nine to Noon discussion program, with their award winning host Kathryn Ryan. With the appalling terrorist attack in Christchurch just a few days earlier, and my work on a series of research projects for US Defense Intelligence Services in the post-9/11 years (mentioned in the second of the Blue Notepad Videos on this site), the discussion naturally began with talk about what role mathematics can play in the fight against terrorism, though eventually moved on to less depressing issues of mathematics education, which is what the original intention was. Full audio of the discussion (30 min) is available on the show website.