Mathematics Village of Ali Nesin: An Evolving Communion of Nature and Science

Ali Nesin has created a novel space for the study and practice of mathematics which reveals the organic connects the subject to the natural world around us

Mathematics is the oldest infrastructure built within the human brain to strategize life from a logical perspective. Based on a research conducted by John Hopkins University, mathematics uses the structural manifestation of human brain’s visual system to integrate logic – a group of visually disabled people suffering from congenital blindness used the same part of brain for logic, which is reserved among people with eyesight for imagery. Therefore, the notion that numbers are shaped based on visual experience does not stand on a firm ground anymore. While it is within the scope of neuroscience to find out the connection between the visual capacity of brain and that of mathematics, it is up to a mathematician to help enhance the logical thinking of a child.

13.5 acres of cerebral communion, stitched with sheer love for numerical curiosity – that’s Nesin Mathematics village for you, perched on a hilltop and cocooned by Olive groves. This mathematical hermitage is the brainchild of Nesin Foundation and is unpretentiously located near the village of Şirince in Turkey.

A walkway in Nesin’s Mathematics Village. Photo: Nesin Maths Village

The architect of the project is Ali Nesin, winner of 2018 Leelavati Award for “his outstanding contributions towards increasing public awareness of mathematics in Turkey, in particular for his tireless work in creating the ‘Mathematics Village’ as an exceptional, peaceful place for education, research and the exploration of mathematics for anyone.” Ali Nesin took over the baton of educational philanthropy from his father Aziz Nesin, one of the pioneers of Turkey in the field of education and social justice. With philanthropy in his genes and mathematics in his veins, Ali Nesin set about transforming a bucolic hillside near Izmir into a seat of mathematical quest.

High school students and the students of colleges and other universities take admission in the village for intensive courses on mathematics. These courses consist of lectures by Nesin and other professors, along with discussions among students. The professors are not paid an honorarium for their lectures, but are provided accommodation and meals. University students are responsible for taking care of smaller groups of high school students and orient them to the protocols at the village. Apart from regular courses, workshops, summer school, and winter school are also organised. The journey of creating such a self-sustaining and creative ecosystem was not as easy as it may seem now. Ali Nesin had to withstand severe political opposition to his institute, which was closed right after it opened gates in 2007. It was even branded as an ‘atheist’ organisation, which was a stigma in the contemporary Turkish society. Despite these hurdles, Ali Nesin kept developing his village as a peaceful place to promote independent thinking and boundary-less learning. In time, Nesin Mathematics Village has manifested into an informal centre of mathematical pursuit – it does not issue any certificate or diploma to its students, but deeply strengthens their roots to engage indialogue, unbridled exchange of concepts and axiomatic thinking, and self-paced mathematical discourse.

Video courtesy: Alexandre Borovik

Although the village is open to all, it is preferred that people with a deep inclination towards advanced mathematics should join for an overall balanced and systematic progress. Having a mathematical bent of mind is an unofficial criterion, as it has been found in several mathematical studies that the language of mathematics is analysed, understood and explained in a brain more adjusted to mathematical symbols and structures.

A pair of researchers at the INSERM–CEA ( Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale ) Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in France performed a test on 15 mathematicians and 15 non-mathematicians using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI).72 high-level mathematical statements divided evenly among algebra, analysis, geometry and topology along with 18 non-mathematical statements were played to the test-subjects, with 4 seconds to decide true, false or meaningless for each statement. The study showed that in the brains of only the mathematicians, the mathematical statements stimulated and activated a network which was not used for language processing and semantics. Co-author of the study Marie Amalric says, “Our results show that high-level mathematical reflection recycles brain regions associated with an evolutionarily ancient knowledge of number and space.” Amalric’s study also showed evidence that a mathematician’s brain had reduced visual activity associated with facial identification and processing; pointing to the fact that the brain may use-up its capacities reserved for other non-mathematical works to boost energy and functioning in the core of mathematical problem-solving.

Developing the skill to enhance logical and factual analysis through thought-exercises is greatly encouraged in the mathematics village, as it is required in solving non-mathematical issues of day-to-day life also. However, some mathematical functioning as in trigonometry is used to provide accurate calculation in higher level of structural formatting such as architecture, oceanography, and cartography. This practice is considered to have dated back to the Babylonian time, evidenced by the  discovery of Plimpton 322 – a Babylonian tablet which is considered to be the world’s oldest trigonometric table, and still proves to be superior to the present-day trigonometry in many ways, pointing to the ease of doing things the mathematical way.

Ease is a matter of rigorous practice, but absolutely essential for the development of a calm and quiet mind; music can provide some relief from the rigor and conflict of that process in a more balanced mathematical way, without exposing the connection between the two. Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras once said, “There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” During a musical session, our brain processes the sound waves although we think that we are actually listening to the rhythm, lyric, or the notes. But to even understand and practice the notes perfectly, one needs to have a basic understanding of physics and mathematics, albeit acknowledging the connection is not a common practice.

Mind is the greatest tool, where the consciousness can be rigorously trained and motivated while also feeling a sense of relief. Music does that for a trained mind. Music is a part of Nesin Mathematics Village too – although not incorporated as a practice, traditional and modern Turkish music is played by the students with instruments like guitar, saz, or kemençe to keep the natural way of nerves steady and happy. With further evolution of mathematical language, hopefully the human mind will continue to unravel its hitherto untapped power in harmony with the ways of nature.

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