“Math Without Numbers”: Alum Milo Beckman (’11) Talks at Stuyvesant

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Issue 13, Volume 112

By Ruiwen Tang, Kai Caothien 

The Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association (SHSAA) held one of its first in-person events open to students this school year on February 17 in the Murray Kahn Theater. The program featured author and mathematician Milo Beckman (’11) discussing his recently published book “Math Without Numbers.” The event was organized by Beckman’s team and aided by the Events Committee of the SHSAA, Director of Family Engagement Dina Ingram, and Assistant Principal of Mathematics & Computer Science Eric Smith.

“Math Without Numbers” was released on January 5, 2021 and is available in 14 different languages. Its goal is to succinctly communicate mathematical concepts in a refreshing and fun way to a general audience. Rather than using plenty of numbers, the book has illustrations by artist M. Erazo on almost every page that aim to demonstrate ideas.

Beckman drew upon his time at Stuyvesant when writing his book, which ultimately inspired him to host his first in-person book release event there. “I spent seven years taking class[es] at Stuy, and I’m grateful to the math teachers I had there who made it possible for me to explore my interest in the subject and eventually write this book,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I see Stuy students as a perfect audience for the book. So, the Stuy auditorium was my first choice for an in-person book event.”

The hour-and-a-half-long event began with opening remarks by David Wagener of Harvard University and Stuyvesant math teacher Jim Cocoros, two figures who have mentored Beckman. They summarized Beckman’s impressive career: entering Stuyvesant when he was eight years old, serving as captain of the New York City Math Team by age 13, studying at Harvard College and Columbia University, and working on New York Times crossword constructions, FiveThirtyEight data journalism, and math curriculum development in China.

Cocoros specifically read aloud an excerpt from his original college recommendation letter for Beckman, which was written in the form of a four-act play. He recalled Beckman’s aptitude for explaining and teaching. “If you ever saw him in the classroom, he had a very conversational style on how he explained things, and even very complex things he explained [in] very simple and understandable terms. And that sort of conversation and style is in the book,” Cocoros said. “Reading his book is not like reading a formal math textbook. It’s like someone telling you a story but filling it with information so you can absorb what’s going on with relative ease.”

During the next portion of the event, Beckman presented content from the “Modeling” chapter of his book. He outlined how models work as a combination of a set of internal, mathematical governing rules and a process that allows the model to be translated back into the real world. The presentation specifically highlighted the discovery of the same shapes and formulas in seemingly unrelated situations, such as the force of gravitational attraction between two known masses and the estimated amount of trade between two countries with known GDPs. Toward the end of the talk, Beckman expanded the concept of modeling to how the entire world’s workings can possibly be modeled by math and even philosophical questions.

The session then transitioned into a facilitated Q&A with Beckman. Audience members asked questions about topics ranging from the relationship between applied math and new research to Beckman’s teaching and writing process. In response to a question, Beckman’s mother, who was present in the audience, recounted her experience of realizing his talent when he was a toddler and the decisions she made to keep him intellectually stimulated. The night ended with a book signing of “Math Without Numbers” and all copies brought to the event selling out.

The event was also affected by COVID-19 restrictions as it was postponed for one month. “Originally, the plan was to host the event in the late fall, but unfortunately, the Omicron variant caused us to postpone the event until after the surge in local cases dropped,” SHSAA Executive Director Diego S. Segalini (’98) said in an e-mail interview. Additionally, all attendees were required to indicate proof of vaccination and complete the DOE Health Screening before entering the auditorium.

Despite these modifications, there was a large turnout from the Stuyvesant community. “Attendance was a huge success. We weren’t sure if people would show up to our free event, given the weather and the ongoing pandemic, but we had 65 out of 80 RSVPs join us,” Segalini said.

Beckman expressed positive sentiments toward the event and hoped that attendees could leave with a greater appreciation for mathematics. “Hosting a real, in-person event and getting to interact with old teachers, friends, students, classmates, and others who came out to support was a warm experience, something I hope to be able to do more often as risks from COVID subside,” he said. “This event gave me the motivation to host more public speaking events and pursue a TED Talk. I hope that attendees without much [of a] background [in math] came away with an understanding that math is [not just] a subject studied in school, but a lens for viewing reality.”