Ali Nesin, the Mathematics Village, and the 2018 Leelavati Prize

By on 05/08/2018
Ali Nesin (Copyright © Muhsin Akgün)

The International Mathematical Union has awarded its 2018 Leelavati Prize for outstanding contributions for increasing public awareness of mathematics as an intellectual discipline’ and the crucial role it plays in diverse human endeavors to Ali Nesin. Alexandre Borovik make some comment about this well deserved prize.

I am delighted to hear of the prize, but I am not surprised; in my life, I taught mathematics in four different countries, and I can confidently say that

Ali Nesin’s work in mathematics education and in promotion of mathematics is indeed unprecedented on a global scale.

The citation for the Leelavati Prize awared to Ali Nesin says (see also here):

Ali Nesin has been awarded with the Leelavati Prize 2018 in recognition of his outstanding contributions and great achievements towards increasing public awareness of mathematics in Turkey, especially because of his tireless work in creating and developing the “Mathematics Village” as an exceptional, peaceful place for education, research and the exploration of mathematics for a wide range of people.

Ali Nesin’s work in mathematics education, his popular mathematics books and textbooks, his public lectures, the popular mathematics journal that he edited, Department of Mathematics (small but world class, by quality) at Bilgi University created by him from scratch, his fantastic Mathematics Village – played, and continue to play, a vitally important role: they set benchmarks for mathematics education in the country. Mathematics, as Ali promotes it, is a part of the wider human culture, a tool for development of independence of thinking, a way of nurturing a harmonic personality in the learner. These ideas were not welcomed in certain parts of Turkish society.

Everything what Ali did for the development of the Mathematics Village, he did against the opposition and pressure from influential political forces which obstructed every his step. The history of the Nesin Mathematics Village was far from simple. It was founded in Summer 2007, only to be almost immediately closed by the authorities.

The photo below was made by me on 26 July 2007: Ali Nesin is giving a lecture in the Robert Langlands Shed – one of two or three buildings which existed in a completed form in the Mathematics Village at the time, named that way because Robert Langlands donated money for its construction.



Ali Nesin is giving a lecture in the Robert Langlands Shed, photo by Alexandre Borovik

Ali Nesin is giving a lecture in the Robert Langlands Shed, photo by Alexandre Borovik

Next day, 27 July 2007, I gave my last lecture and made this photo of he timetable of lectures for the day, as a symbol of peace and tranquillity:


After my lecture, I went to a café in the nearby village of Sirince which had Internet connection and wrote my blogpost Gold Sand in a Stream, you can find it here, it provides an intereting historic snapshot. At that very time, the Mathematics Village was raided by Gendarmes and sealed:


The photo of the Blackboard under Arrest (below) was published in leading Turkish newspapers and became viral on the Internet.  


The writing on the board is Ali Nesin’s, the formulae are leftovers from one of his informal classes. Ali Nesin was accused of “teaching without permission”. He was prepared to stand the trial and defend himself on constitutional grounds: indeed, Turkish constitution guaranteed freedom of teaching of sciences. Luckily, the case was eventully dropped and Ali was saved from prison. Since then, the Mathematics Village flourished. It is a paradise for mathematically inclined schoolchildren and undergraduate students – thanks to Ali’s pedagogy, based on his principles of

safety – independence – responsibility

and to the guiding principles of his model of mathematics education:

empowerment — independence – rigour

The Village attracts the best Turkish teachers and promoters of mathematics, as well as mathematicians from all over the world. Many lecturers are former students of previous Summer Programes in the Village. Everyone who teaches in the Village is doing that for free. Ali Nesin himself gives estimated 1000 hours of lectures every year. And he wrote hundreds, perhaps, articles on the popular (with mass circulations: up to 20,000 thousand copies) mathematics magazine that he was editing for many years.

I was privileged to visit, and do mathematics research, and give lectures in the Village every summer from its start in 2007. I was working here with my co-authors, and we produced some nice papers here. 

To give some idea of lectures in Summer programmes in the Village, last week I delivered five lectures to a small group of schoolchildren and fresh secondary school leavers who will start their university studies in September. It was a course without any formal pre-requisites, about the elementary divisibility theory for integers and for polynomials, developed in parallel, and it ended with an explanation of why the Chinese Remainder Theorem and Lagrange’s Interpolation Theorem was exactly one and the same thing, and then showing where the parallel development for integers and polynomials ends: a proof that the Fermat equation $$a(x)^n +b(x)^n = c(x)^n$$ has no solution in non-constant complex polynomials if n > 2, which perhaps provides an explanation that the failure of uniqueness of prime factorisation in cyclotomic fields was perhaps the reason for Fermat’s famous mistake.

Ali, in his lectures for schoolchildren which he gave in the same week, was much more ambitious: he explained to them construction of nonstandard real numbers via ultraproducts, gently introducing ultrafilters as voting systems. It needs to be emphasised that the Village is not a school in any conventional understanding of this term: there are no tests or exams, no grades, and no diplomas of any kind are awarded. Participants are self-selected – as a rule, most of them are motivated by genuine interest to mathematics, and this interest, and motivation for further deeper study of mathematics, is dramatically re-enforced by their experience in the Village. 

The Nesin Mathematics Village is now a cultural magnet; on the next photo, made in May 2016, you could see part of the Village on the left and, on the right, another remarkable development, Theatre Madrasa.  

The photograph is by Şükrü Yalçınkaya, 2016

The photograph is by Şükrü Yalçınkaya, 2016

Ali Nesin was not involved in this project, but it was founded on principles borrowed from the Mathematics Village. All that beauty was built with money donated by public, without funding or other support from the government. The architectural style of the Village became quite fashionable in Turkey. Meanwhile, Sevan Nişanyan, a friend of Ali, a self-taught architect and the developer of the Mathematics Village and the Theatre Madrasa, (and also a prominent Turkish linguist) was imprisoned on politically motivated trumped-up charges and spent several years in prisons; his original term of 4 years  was increased, in subsequent trials, to 17 years, but he was not serving it. Last year, he escaped from prison and lives in exile. 

The Mathematics Village is a great success, but it still needs every possible help and support of the international mathematical community.

Alexandre Borovik

Further reading

  1. Nesin Mathematics Village web page
  2. Krishnaswami Alladi and Gabriela Asli Rino Nesin, The Nesin Mathematics Village in Turkey, Notices of the AMS, Volume 62, Number 6, pp. 252-258.
  3. Karaali, G., “Nesin Math Village: Mathematics as a Revolutionary Act”, The Mathematical Intelligencer, Volume 36 Issue 2 (2014), pages 45–49.



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