UMinn profs' math video is YouTube phenom; 1M hits and counting

Last update: December 5, 2007 - 4:23 PM

After Douglas Arnold and Jonathan Rogness created a short video to help illustrate complicated mathematical concepts, they posted it on YouTube so family members and friends could take a peek.

They didn't think anyone else would care. Then the video appeared atop YouTube's Featured Videos list, and the colorful clip turned into a phenomenon with more than 1 million hits.

"For one brief shining moment ... mathematics was featured above talking cats and how to charge an iPod with Gatorade," quipped Arnold, a math professor and director of the University of Minnesota's Institute for Mathematics and its Applications.

Set to classical music by Schumann, the video uses a colorful grid and moving sphere to illustrate a complex geometric concept called Moebius transformations, which explore what happens to lines, circles, and angles as a flat surface is deformed. Moebius transformations are used in fields such as brain mapping, electrical engineering, mapmaking, and video animation.

Arnold and Rogness created the video for a contest sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Science magazine. Their 2 1/2-minute clip tied for an honorable mention in the contest's noninteractive media category.

Arnold said he's reached more people through the clip than through an estimated 5,000 lectures he's given in 30 years of teaching.

"And when you read one of these (comments) that said, 'Well, I didn't understand everything, but it makes me want to study math,' ... That's very rewarding."

Several online comments describe the video as "beautiful," which pleases Rogness, an assistant professor and associate director of the university's Institute of Technology Center for Educational Programs.

"There are a lot of people who equate math with just arithmetic," he said. "They think professional mathematicians, we sit around in our offices, compute square roots to 20 decimal places or add up long columns of numbers just for fun. That's really not the case."

Arnold said he used animation 10 years ago to describe a simple Moebius transformation and posted that online too _ long before YouTube.

In January, Arnold was contacted by a filmmaker who wanted to use that old animation in a documentary about math and art _ so that got Arnold thinking about Moebius transformations again. About two weeks later, Arnold heard Rogness give a lecture about the use of graphics in teaching mathematics, and the two began talking about collaborating on a project.

Within days, Science magazine announced its contest _ providing the perfect opportunity.

After they posted the video on YouTube six months ago, a few people who were interested in math and science found it and mentioned it on blogs. Graduate students at Harvard and Berkeley analyzed the mathematical theory behind the video, Arnold said.

In one night, the viewership jumped from a couple hundred hits to 6,000. Over the next few months, the number grew to about 85,000. But then it was featured by YouTube, and the hits multiplied exponentially.

"I thought it was really cool," Jessica Arck, 23, a first-year law student at the University of Minnesota, said after being shown the video. "I think the illustration made a very complex idea more tangible."

Kassandra Simon, a 22-year-old English major, had a tougher time understanding the video's popularity.

"If I was going to watch this in my free time, well, I probably wouldn't," Simon said. "Maybe there's a lot more math nerds out there than we thought!"

But Arnold and Rogness saw a real purpose to their project.

"What we are trying to do in this movie is let people who are very uncomfortable with the algebraic side still get a glimpse of mathematics," said Arnold. "But the real beauty of mathematics is when you can keep both of those in your head and see one reflected in another."


To watch the video:

The Institute for Mathematics and its Applications:

Center for Educational Programs: