Visiting professor of distinguished teaching in the math department Keith Devlin said that, during his childhood, he did not intend to go into mathematics as a career.
“In elementary school, I was particularly bad at math. I was the worst kid in the class,” he said.
However, Devlin, who is currently teaching MAT 195: Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, has authored over 80 papers and 32 books, including “The Millennium Problems” and “The Language of Mathematics,” and was recognized in 2003 by the California State Assembly for his contributions to mathematics and its relation to logic and linguistics. Devlin currently serves as a senior research scientist at Stanford, where his research revolves around intelligence gathering for the U.S. government and creating platforms for furthering mathematics education.
Devlin also serves as an executive committee member for MediaX and the executive director for the Human Science and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, and is also a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Mathematical Society.
“Everyone finds professor Devlin to be inspiring to work with,” associate departmental representative of the math department Jennifer Johnson said, adding that Devlin’s research is unlike anything else that is being done at the University.
Devlin explained that MAT 195 is designed to teach students to apply mathematical principles to everyday situations. He noted that he designed the class to be a flipped lecture, in which students watch a lecture before class and then discuss the material or give presentations during class. He added that he had already taught the class at Stanford, and that his course was the first-ever massive open online course in mathematics.
Johnson explained that the University's mathematics department reached out to Devlin to teach after University mathematics professor Manjul Bhargava GS ’01 and several mathematics graduate students had already done so. Johnson said that Bhargava, who was familiar with Devlin’s work from his time in college, asked Devlin to come to the University and share his knowledge with students.
Bhargava did not respond to a request for comment.
Johnson said that the math department wanted to explore teaching a math course aimed at non-math and non-engineering people, and asked Devlin to teach the course at the University.
“We thought it would be interesting to see how this course would work here with Princeton students,” Johnson said.
Devlin said that he had also taught the course in spring 2013-14, and that after teaching it for the first time at the University he realized he had to tweak certain aspects of the course to orient it more toward the liberal arts. He noted that while he was able to present the material to University students the same way that he could present it to Stanford students, who are more “techie,” he had to experiment with making the class more interactive.
Students and colleagues said they find the course and Devlin to be fascinating. Johnson said that Devlin is a very down-to-earth, intelligent and friendly person.
“His flipped lecture style works and should be the model for most quantitative college courses,” Julie Kwong ’16 said."Professor Devlin is teaching a class unlike any other I’ve taken here thus far."
Anne Merrill ’18 said she finds Devlin engaging and inspiring both in and out of the classroom.
“He led us gently into a new way of thinking about mathematics, and then has pushed us to keep going,” she said."MAT 195 has captured the way I look at the world and turned it into an abstraction."
Devlin explained that he first went to Stanford in 1987 when he was invited to join the Center for the Study of Language and Information, where he helped write theories to determine how information can be conveyed between computers. He left Stanford in 1989 to serve as chairman of the mathematics and computer science department at Colby College, and left Colby in 1993 to work at St. Mary’s College of California.
“The Maine winters were too cold for me,” Devlin said.
Devlin said Stanford contacted him in 2001 and asked him to take over CSLI. He accepted and has been there as a senior researcher ever since.
Devlin explained that his research interests in the 1980s dealt with the field of artificial intelligence and information, and that he had set out to write theories to determine how information could be conveyed between computers.
Devlin’s research since 2001 has focused on intelligence gathering and teaching mathematical concepts to a general audience. He explained that he had served on the National Research Council, a committee to advise the President of the United States on mathematical education, and that the CIA and the Department of Defense contacted him after Sept. 11 to improve their intelligence gathering.
“They were looking for a symbiosis of human intelligence and mathematics,” he said.
His work for the CIA consisted of studying the achievements of retired intelligence analysts and using mathematical methods to prepare future analysts for their jobs. This work served as the inspiration for his courses at Princeton and Stanford, he said.
Outside the Ivory Tower
Devlin said that outside of academia, he appears as the “Math Guy” on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. His most recent appearance was a discussion about the International Mathematical Olympiad. He explained that after University math professor Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1995, NPR began looking for a mathematician to appear.
Representatives atNPR did not respond to a request for comment.
“They wanted someone who could explain a really complicated thing on a Saturday morning radio program,” Devlin said.
He explained that they found him because he was serving as the editor of the Mathematical Association of America’s monthly newsletter. His publication, which was sent to newsrooms, led to his appearing on many news shows explaining recent advances in math, he said.
Devlin said that he enjoys his appearances on NPR.
“After the show, I got a lot of exposure,” he said.
Devlin also served as a math advisor for the CBS crime show NUMB3RS during its first two seasons from 2005-07.
NUMB3RS is about a mathematician who uses math to help his brother, an FBI agent, solve crimes. Devlin explained that when he learned that a mathematics-based crime show was going to be filmed at the California Institute of Technology, he contacted the producers and asked how he could contribute.
Devlin explained that his job on the show was to make sure that the mathematical concepts were presented correctly. These mathematical concepts included the mathematics behind image enhancement, he said.
Devlin ended up co-authoring the book “The Numbers Behind NUMB3RS” with Caltech professor emeritus Gary Lorden, who served as the chief mathematics consultant for NUMB3RS.
“Keith can really beautifully do justice to the scholarship of mathematics,” Lorden said. “He really understands the way mathematical disciplines work and the historical concepts behind the discipline. We made a great team.”
Representatives at CBS did not respond to a request for comment.
Organizations founded by Devlin while at Stanford include MediaX and H-STAR. Devlin said that he co-founded MediaX in 2002 to help businesses understand how to take advantage of newly emerging social media.
“MediaX became the node that connected industry to Stanford University when it was about social science research,” Devlin said.
He said that H-STAR, which he founded in 2006, has a similar mission to MediaX but links universities together instead of linking universities to industry. H-STAR receives funding from the government.
Devlin said he originally wanted to go into space research one year before he started high school, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. However, he became acquainted with the study of calculus for the first time at the age of 16 and found it to be a powerful tool in terms of calculating the motion of planetary objects. At that point, he said, he decided to drop physics in favor of mathematics.
“That just blew me away,” Devlin said.
Devlin received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Kings College London in 1968 and his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Bristol in 1971, where his focus was on logic and number theory and that his Ph.D. dissertation was in logic.
He explained that he started collaborating with researchers in the United States after college because of the amount of research in the country. He then traveled throughout Europe and North America for several years, and eventually returned to England to work at the University of Lancaster from 1977 to 1987.
Devlin said he has been taking advantage of his time at Princeton, adding that he likes biking and walking around the surrounding areas and exploring Princeton’s shops and restaurants.
“I’m really enjoying it. I’m living in a bubble, and it’s a really nice bubble,” he said.