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October 31, 2006

Devlin to demystify numbers for math-averse students in Math 15

By Dawn Levy

Keith Devlin, a consulting professor in the Mathematics Department, travels the globe explaining the mysteries of math to the math averse at lectures and on television and radio (he's National Public Radio's "Math Guy"). He hasn't taught an undergraduate course since coming to Stanford in 2001, but that changes this winter with the introduction of Math 15, Overview of Mathematics. Specially designed for nonscience majors, the course will provide a broad survey of the nature and role of mathematics in society. It's largely based on two books Devlin wrote for popular audiences, The Language of Mathematics and Life by the Numbers.

"This kind of course is extremely valuable in preparing young people for life in today's society," Devlin says. "In fact, it's the kind of course that math majors could benefit from, since it provides a broad overview of the subject that they don't get in the intensive curriculum we give them."

That said, Devlin is not planning on accepting any math majors when enrollment for winter quarter classes begins on Nov. 20. Math 15 is expected to enroll 25 students. It is a "disciplinary breadth" (DB) course, a requirement aimed at ensuring a well-rounded education. Stanford undergraduates are required to take one math course. Most fulfill their math DB requirement by taking calculus.

"My audience is the nonscience students who would not enjoy, and get little out of, doing calculus to fulfill their DB requirement," Devlin says.

On the first day of class, Devlin will have students complete a brief survey asking their intended majors, desired careers and major hobbies. "On the basis of the responses, I construct a curriculum that will include at least one topic of direct relevance to each student's major, career or hobby," he says.

Devlin will try to ensure that the curriculum he constructs covers math's mainstays—number systems, calculus, algebra, topology, geometry—and their roles in scientific, industrial and technological revolutions. From applications on the sporting field and at the movies to uses in the criminal forensics lab and the courtroom, he will explore mathematics in fields as diverse as art, business, cryptography, economics, history, homeland security, language, medicine, science and technology. For example, he might scrutinize the math of Google searches, videogames, iPods and mobile phones, and the statistics of political polls, consumer research, lotteries and gambling.

"In addition to getting a broad overview of mathematics, I also want the students to experience doing math, so it's not all talking and writing about math," Devlin says. "They have to do some problems, though I try to make it as unlike high school math as possible."

The course makes use of video clips from various documentaries, a six-part PBS TV series called Life by the Numbers Devlin worked on a few years ago and the CBS fictional crime series NUMB3RS, for which he is writing a companion book with Gary Lorden, the Mathematics Department head at Caltech who is the show's principal consultant.

"The main point of the videos is to let the students hear the 'message' firsthand from the folks who actually do the work using math," Devlin says. "I'll also show some videos where pure mathematicians describe their work, say why they do it and explain what it's like to be a mathematician." He also hopes to get a couple of Stanford mathematicians to come into the classroom for guest appearances.

Math 15 will meet winter quarter on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 to 10:50 a.m. in the Wallenberg Hall Lecture Theater. If the course is a success—and who wouldn't bet on those odds?—Devlin hopes to offer two sections in the 2007-08 school year.

Editor Note:

A photo of Devlin is available on the web at



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,


Keith Devlin, Mathematics: (650) 725-3286,

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