“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was cutting edge in 1996-7, when we were making the series, each year about 10% of the six hours of content became out of date, a dramatic illustration of the rapid pace at which mathematics and its applications develop in the present era.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.

Pi Day

Every year on March 14, schools and the media celebrate Pi Day, noting that the usual American way to write the date, 3.14, is Pi to two decimal places.

This year, I used a request to comment on some other famous mathematical constants to sneak in a bit of PR for SUMOP. See the full post on LiveScience, where various mathematicians discuss nine illustrious mathematical constants besides Pi.

Pi Day was first celebrated in 1988 as a fun PR ruse for math, and in 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives recognized March 14, 2009 as National Pi Day.

SUMOP on the road


On February 7, I traveled to Monroe, New Jersey, to give the first presentation under the SUMOP banner, the keynote address for the Annual Meeting of the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New Jersey.

It was a variation of the presentation I gave at the Maths for the 21st Century conference organized by the Fondation Helvetica Educatio in Geneva, Switzerland on May 25, 2018.

Lot of Jo Boaler fans in the audience!


Welcome to the Mathematics Outreach Project blog. Here are links to my other blogs:

Devlin’s Angle for the Mathematical Association of America. This monthly blog (edited by the MAA) began in January 1996, and has run on several platforms. You can access the complete archives through to December 2018 at:
Jan 1993 – Dec 2003
Jan 2004 – Jul 2013
Aug 2013 – Dec 2018

profkeithdevlin.org, my personal mathematical blog. Last updated in 2016, but it’s math stuff so hardly anything is out-of-date, and now I am officially retired I expect to have more time to do things that could be reported there!

MOOCtalk.org, the blog I kept when I was actively involved in Stanford’s famous MOOC experiment, starting in 2012. I leave this up as a record of that fascinating period in the development of online education.

Huff Post. I’ve more or less stopped writing articles for the Huff Post (formerly called the Huffington Post), but some of those posts are still doing the rounds on social media.

The Math Guy. It’s a radio show, not a blog, but my occasional chats with host Scott Simon on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” are all linked on this page. Unfortunately, some of the earlier recordings are in a file format that doesn’t play on today’s platforms. To compensate, here is a live interview I did with Scott at the Museum of Mathematics Gala in New York City in 2017.