October: Homecoming Time For Math

In late September and early October, it is a tradition in North American colleges/universities for alumni to be formally invited back to the schools they graduated from. It is always a big celebration, framed by parties and other social events.

Well, in many ways, after a wait of a few thousand years, mathematics is returning home in this festive Fall season. The italicization here is a moment for some pause — for what does that really mean, the home of mathematics? Well, the bar for the answer to that question got raised early this year, when Francis Su, outgoing president of Mathematics Association of America, hit it out of the park when talking about math’s true nature and calling. In a follow up interview with Quora, he said that the “Good Life” involves mathematics — beauty, truth, justice, play and love.

If that is the yardstick, then this year’s inaugural Global Math Project has made an ambitious — and yes, James Tanton, audacious — attempt to welcome back mathematics to its virtuous and globally connected home.

Attempt. Such a modest word, but it is so inclusively…human. Maybe, it’s more than that. In the 1995 movie Before Sunrise, a charming and romantic scene with two soon-to-be soulmates, evokes a deeper idea of what attempt means.

The idea of bringing one million people from all around the globe together to celebrate such an illuminating and connecting piece of mathematics called “Exploding Dots” is nothing short of a wholehearted attempt to steer mathematics towards the emboldening words of Francis Su.

So if you don’t already know — and with the connecting and communicating power of social media, it would be hard — The Global Math Project is about to set sail next month. Set sail. An idiomatic phrase meaning to embark on a journey by boat. How appropriate. The boat here — the vessel of universal communication — is mathematics. And, in one month, it will land in over 80 countries around the world — in the most unsuspecting of places: American Samoa, Cambodia and South Georgia and South Sandwich islands!

What a journey awaits…

But, where did it start? What is it’s story? Why is it so compelling?

The Global Math Project would have happened regardless of some very fateful life intersections — almost a story made for Hollywood — but, there is a very personal event which triggered the version of The Global Math Project in this universe

I quit teaching in June of 2013. In spite of having enjoyable times in teaching in such diverse communities — from a Toronto inner-city school that had some of the most challenging situations(emotionally and economically) to an International IB School on Lake Geneva in Switzerland — the last few years of my career were miserable. I felt like both mathematics and I are were imprisoned — holding up in some Gulag-like institution of draconian learning.

I felt that if I quit, I could somehow — in my wildest dreamlike aspirations — have some impact on a global stage. Never ever in my imaginations would it surpass what my gut might have been delusional about. Never. And, so my quitting triggered a series of events that only could be chalked up to something like only the universe knows and delivers

I envisioned opening up the first math store/school in Canada. It was going to be called The Right Angle. It was located in a beautiful historic village just north of Toronto, beside a delightful candy/chocolate shop. It was perfect. Excited as I was, I started to both reach out to people all over North America and learn as many new ideas about mathematics that I possibly could. In my search, I came across a person named James Tanton. He seemed to be doing some wonderfully quirky things with math — it was like if he was some delightful hybrid of Descartes and Willy Wonka. And, like me, he was born in Australia! So, I wrote him a short email about 3 years ago, announcing my own ambitious and audacious project. I wasn’t expecting a reply. Just wanted to send out good math vibes. A few days later, this:

G’Day Again:

All sounds and looks exciting and real! Good for you! A cyber-coffee would be grand. I am traveling for the next week or so, but after that?

Grades 3 and up. Super! Can I ask that you seriously consider making exploding dots work a theme throughout your entire curriculum?

Everything looked so promising. We had a partnership with Queens University for their Fac Ed students to do a placement at the school. We had a school trip planned all the way from Ottawa — a four hour bus ride. And then, two weeks before our opening, there was a catastrophic fire in March 2015 in our building. Smoke damage everywhere. My dream of opening up my own boutique math school literally went up in flames. I was at a loss — both emotionally and financially. The only thing that I could do was try and export the ideas into schools. There was an Ontario Association of Math Educators Annual Conference coming up in May. I decided to get a vendor’s table.

The only problem was that I didn’t have money to purchase that. I was already borrowing money from my parents to help pay child/spousal support. I came very close to not going. In the end, I didn’t make the decision — it seems the universe did.

Right beside me at the conference was a company called Scolab. I spent two days having great conversations with Carl and Tom, two of its founders. Those conversations eventually led to me being hired full-time by the company. If I didn’t go the conference and be situated right next to them — there are over 100 other vendors I could have been beside — so much of what you are about to see never happens. A fire. A fateful table placement. The universe was elbowing me in the head to do something…global:)

My relationship/friendship with James continued to grow out of the ashes of a mathematical dream. I met him at NCTM in San Francisco in 2016, and the seeds of The Global Math Project were sprouting — and I started to toy with the idea of having the company that rescued me from those very ashes to maybe collaborate on the Exploding Dots project.

I will let the following pictures, in some kind of chronological order, speak to the beautiful union between The Global Math Project and Scolab:

…From Cinnamon Hearts and a cup of Coffee
The Powerful Idea of a Dot
James at Scolab Office in Montreal: Sept 2016
Handy Dry-Erase Board
Pure Early Imagination: James “Wonka” Tanton’s Exploding Dots Tour
The Exploding Dot Islands Come To Life
The Story Begins For The World In October
James Tanton and Scolab: The Finished Vision

Mathematics is a human story. Plain and simple. It is fitting then that its largest global endeavor is a human story in of itself. My story, while deeply personal, is just one of many in this larger, compelling story. Hundreds of people are working feverishly — but passionately — to bring the world the richest and most inclusive experience of mathematics they have ever seen. But, hopefully underscored here is that mathematics can truly uplift and eclipse life’s challenges.

The Global Math Project is an American initiative. So there is immense pride and satisfaction for me that Scolab, a Canadian company, is centrally responsible for bringing so much animation, color and joy in the mathematics that is Exploding Dots. Just wait until you see, world!

The only frontier now left for mathematics is one steeped in its own humanness. With the bar raised, many deep breaths, the journey begins next month. Please join use for this once-in-a-lifetime event…

All aboard!

The kickoff celebrations begin in New York on October 7 with a Symposium at NYU and a kick off party at The Museum of Mathematics later that evening.

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Sunil Singh

Sunil Singh

Author, porous educator, audiophile.