FYS 108 The Godfather of Numbers: Designing the Universe Through Math

(Fall 2018)
Instructor: Dr. Manil Suri

Detailed weekly schedule available through this link.

Basic Information

  • Dr. Manil Suri, Math/Psych 419, (410) 455-2311, suri@umbc.edu,
    office hours: MW 3:30-4:30 or by appointment
  • Meeting Times: MW 1:00-2:15 (PAH 123)
  • Text: The Godfather of Numbers (will be made available in sections)
  • Prerequisites: Math 106 or Grade 3,4,5 on LRC Math placement test.

Outline and Syllabus

Could one design the universe using just mathematics? That’s the question we’ll explore in this course. Numbers are the easiest – they can be hewn out of emptiness. For geometry, we’ll need the notion of “point,” leading to notions of length, distance, space. Circles and squares might be too boring, so we’ll also generate fractal shapes. Then comes physics – and some hard choices. What alternative to select for distance, whether to use “curved” geometry or not, whether to make the universe finite or infinite. Fortunately, we’ll have “The Godfather of Numbers” to guide us – the eponymous narrator of our textbook. Along the way, he’ll point out connections with science, philosophy, art, and show us how math is woven into our universe’s very fabric.

The book is in six parts:

Part I deals with numbers and arithmetic, but in a way you have probably not seen before.

Part II deals with geometry, including exotic “curved” ones where parallel lines do meet.

Part III introduces algebra as something needed to make the universe comprehensible.

Part IV is about fractal shapes that permeate so much of our surroundings.

Part V, very briefly, is about physics.

Part VI is about counting and how it can lead us to various infinite realms.

In addition to the above text, there will be several other related readings, which will be introduced as the class progresses.


The general goals of this course are to gain knowledge and appreciation of how mathematics can be built up step-by step, and how it permeates our universe. This includes an introduction into enjoying the aesthetic “beauty” of math and also rounding out your education with some contemporary issues mathematicians are interested in.

More specifically, by the end of the course, the goal is for you to:

  1. Develop mathematical reasoning skills (topics such as fractals and “curved” geometry will contribute to this). Acquire content-based knowledge that can be practically applied outside this course (e.g. mechanisms through which math shapes physical processes).
  2. Enhance problem-solving, analytic and logical abilities (numerical problems will contribute, as will “thinking outside the box” qualitative problems, which play an essential role in building up mathematics from its basics).
  3. Gain insight in how mathematics arises in other disciplines (e.g. physics, biology, art). Also, learn about broader issues and open questions in mathematics. (class readings will contribute to topics 1 through 3).
  4. Enhance oral and written communication skills.  (class discussions and writing assignments will contribute to this)
  5. Undertake a creative exploration of math’s connection with your field of interest. (the final project will contribute to this)
  6. Appreciate the idea that math can be fun.

Class Format and Assignments

The format will be to read a few chapters of the main text at home, along with other materials, and discuss related questions in class. There will be both descriptive and problem-type assignments to enhance understanding of the material. You will each write two essays, and also do a creative project that involves math and your field of interest. The project, which can be joint with a co-student, will include a class presentation.

There will be no tests or final.

Attendance Requirement

This is an attendance-mandatory class. You are expected to attend all classes (attendance will be taken via Blackboard each time). Being more than 7 minutes late or leaving early will be counted as an absence (unless pre-approved). To qualify for a C or better, you cannot have more than four absences for reasons other than documented illness or religious holidays.


Your overall grade will be based on the following formula:

Class Participation: 20% (Based on attendance and participation in discussions)

Assignments: 20%

Essays: 35%

Project: 25%

To get a C or better, you MUST satisfy the attendance requirement. Once this is satisfied, the cut-off overall scores will be 90% for an A, 80% for a B, 65% for a C and 50% for a D.

Class Etiquette

No texting. No chatting among yourselves unless for class purposes. Repeated violations will be marked up as absences and endanger your attendance requirement.

Important Dates

Wed, Sep 12 is the last date to drop a class without a W on your transcript. Tue, Nov 13 is the last date to drop this class with a grade of W. Please talk to me if you are having trouble with the class or are thinking of dropping it.

Academic Conduct

By enrolling in this course, each student assumes the responsibilities of an active participant in UMBC’s scholarly community in which everyone’s academic work and behavior are held to the highest standards of honesty. Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and helping others to commit these acts are all forms of academic dishonesty, and they are wrong. Academic misconduct could result in disciplinary action that may include, but is not limited to, suspension or dismissal. To read the full Student Academic Conduct Policy, consult the UMBC Student Handbook, the Faculty Handbook, or the UMBC Policies section of the UMBC Directory.

Accommodations for Disability

If you require accommodations for this class based on disability, please make an appointment to meet with me to discuss your SSS-approved accommodations. Please see http://my.umbc.edu/groups/sss/documents/838 for more information.

Consent Statement

There is a chance that the results of surveys and assignments may be used for research publications in mathematics education, as described in the following Consent Statement:

“I consent to participate in the research aspect of this pilot class. This indicates my agreement that all information collected from me individually may be used by current and future researchers in such a fashion that my personal identity will be protected. Such use will include presentations at scientific or professional meetings, publishing in scientific journals, sharing anonymous information with other researchers for checking the accuracy of study findings and for future approved research that has the potential for improving human knowledge.”

However, you are free to opt out of such usage at any stage of the course (you just need to inform me). You will still be required to complete all assignments and surveys, but your responses would then not be tabulated for the purposes of such research.