A Fighter for Math’s Next Generation

Despite police raids, threats of arrest and a shortage of resources, mathematician Ali Nesin has built an oasis for math education in rural Turkey. For his efforts, he wins the 2018 Leelavati Prize

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The scar across Ali Nesin’s nose may not be immediately noticeable next to the Santa Claus beard that hangs from his genial face. Still, the fibrous tissue is an appropriate badge. He got it, he says, after getting into a fistfight in which one of his four opponents clamped down on his nose to bite it off. “Like this,” he says, clenching his teeth and then shaking his head back and forth. There was blood everywhere, he recalls.

Nesin recounted this story to me one late-spring evening over olives, fresh bread, cheese and wine. He also talked of the times he defied orders from the police, criticized government authorities in a country where free speech has eroded, and confronted a gang making too much noise below his apartment — the incident that led to his Mike Tyson moment one fateful night in 2000. (As he describes it, the men were shaking down the owner of the café below him.)

The combativeness of the 60-year-old Nesin, a professor of mathematics at Istanbul Bilgi University, was no doubt essential in his founding of the Mathematics Village in the rural mountains of Turkey. With his longtime friend Sevan Nişanyan — with whom he once shared a jail cell — Nesin fought to create an oasis for researchers and students of math at all levels. In recognition of his efforts, the International Mathematical Union awarded him this week the 2018 Leelavati Prize for “his creation, organization and development of the Mathematics Village, despite difficult economic and political conditions,” as the citation states. Police raids, a coup attempt and lack of money were just some of those challenges.

Given the number of buildings and the infrastructure, it’s hard to believe the village is only 11 years old. Visitors are transported to an idyllic world surrounded both by natural beauty and inspired architecture. Quaint stone pathways and steps wind through lecture halls, classrooms and dormitories. The aroma of fresh bread baking in ovens on the village’s central walkway fills the nearby dining halls. Everything, down to the shrubs and flowers, seems thoughtfully and tastefully positioned to encourage both human interaction and quiet contemplation. Thousands of Turkey’s students now pass through the village over the course of a year.

Nesin could have spent his life as a math professor in the U.S. After graduating from the University of Paris VII, he earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1985 and then took positions at various U.S. universities. While teaching at the University of California, Irvine, in 1995, he got news that his father, the Turkish writer and activist Aziz Nesin, had died. He went back to Turkey to take care of the foundation for poor children that his father had started.

Running the foundation did not pay a salary, so Nesin needed a day job. He was offered the chair of the math department of the newly founded Bilgi University. “It was a chance in a lifetime” to develop a program, Nesin says. “So I looked around Turkey and tried to find out what was missing,” he says. “I found out that what was missing was the elite education” offered by the likes of the École Normale Supérieure or Harvard or Yale. “This was actually the beginning of the Math Village,” he says, because he realized students were not prepared for the kind of university math he wanted to teach.

“The failure rate was high,” he says of his Bilgi students. “They were not studying, they were not working. They were not thinking. They didn’t know how to think.” Indeed, the national university exams used to place students encouraged memory over thinking, says Irmak Balçık, one of Nesin’s former students at Bilgi University. “All math was taught as memorizing a list of formulas without letting us know the reasoning, logical arguments and deductions behind the formulas,” she says.

To prepare students for elite-university rigor, Nesin began tutoring them in his home and then started temporary summer schools around Turkey. Upwards of 90 students were attending the program, and Nesin decided to find a permanent home “because it was very difficult to organize these summer schools.”

He reached out to his old friend, Sevan Nişanyan, who was renovating and erecting buildings in Şirince, about 80 kilometers southeast of Izmir and near the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus. The two had gotten close while serving their mandatory time in the military in the early 1980s, shortly after a coup d’état put the Turkish Armed Forces in charge for three years. Neither made a good soldier: They had run-ins with their commanding officers for playing chess, reading and complaining about the reuse of vaccination needles, Nesin recounts. They were charged with inciting military rebellion. “We stayed three months in the same cell together. I learned a lot from him,” Nesin says.

They talked frequently about the plans for the math village, and in the spring of 2007 they began construction near Şirince. They cleared the dense bushes, dug a well for water and brought in electricity. At the start, “I had $20,000 maybe,” Nesin says, and that money was quickly spent. He drafted volunteers — specifically, the students — to help.

Nesin’s dream nearly ended as soon as it began. A few days after the summer session began in July 2007, the Turkish gendarmes, a branch of the armed forces, came to shut it down. “Most likely they were very afraid that something would happen because young people were there,” Nesin says.  Contributing factors probably were Nesin’s past defiance of military authorities and Nişanyan’s “openly harsh” criticism of the government, as Nesin puts it. (Nişanyan is of Armenian descent, and that ethnic minority has faced persecution, perhaps most notably in the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire engaged in genocidal attacks.)

Forced out of the village, Nesin’s students and faculty, numbering about three dozen at the time, set up camp in the nearby woods, in an area filled with bones. “It was a horse cemetery,” Nesin explains. “There were bones of horses piled up.” Today, the area is home to rental cottages, and the only visible remnant of the cemetery is the horse skull on a wall next to an outdoor dining table in the math village.

When the gendarmes returned in a few days and told Nesin they wanted him out of the forest as well, Nesin fought back. He had kept a diary of the village and sent it to a newspaper, which published it. “We became famous in one day,” Nesin says. “Before, nobody knew because I was trying to keep it secret, because we were doing something illegal.”

Buoyed by the publicity, Nesin returned to the village and tore down the official seals barring entry. Soon, widespread popular support — “people, simple people, gave money to my dream,” Nesin says — enabled the math village to not only survive but also expand. Its future was likely secured after Nesin publicly condemned the July 2016 coup attempt against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president. “I am against any kind of coup d’état unless the democratic rights are exhausted,” he wrote in a Facebook post on July 15, 2016.

Although lawyers got Nesin’s case thrown out, his friend Nişanyan was not as lucky. Having erected other buildings in Şirince besides those in the math village, he ended up in prison for illegal construction, even though zoning violations had never previously drawn long sentences, Nesin says. Nişanyan’s supporters and human-rights advocates instead suspect his irreverent writing and criticism of the Erdoğan government — which has cracked down on many freedoms — was the source of his prosecution. “Turkey has turned into a veritable madhouse,” Nişanyan told National Public Radio in an interview last year shortly after he escaped prison and fled to Greece.

For Turkish students of math, though, time in the village is transformative. “A typical day in the village started at 7 a.m. After attending classes until noon, I found myself helping the cook to prepare meals, washing dishes, cleaning baths and watering trees,” recalls Balçık, who spent many summers at the village starting in 2009 and is now a math Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California. Rather than making the students feel resentful or put upon, the tasks “made us feel the village was like our second home,” she says.

Equally important, of course, was the tutoring and classwork. “The village played a very important role in my life and my eventual decision to study math at the graduate school level,” says Balçık, who was inspired by meeting mathematicians from all over the world who came to the village to visit and teach.

Nesin himself seems astonished at the village’s success. “Societies don’t give so much value to mathematics,” he remarks. A village where you teach math “is not supposed to survive.” And yet it has, and thrived. “It’s a miracle,” he chuckles, “like throwing dice and getting double sixes each time.” Nesin planned to bring Nişanyan to the 2018 International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio de Janeiro, where he is accepting the prize. “Without his courage and without his ability and his intelligence, the math village wouldn’t exist,” Nesin says.

I ask him about the village’s logo, a rooster, painted red on the hood of the village’s vans. The rooster is an “animal that wakes you up, enlightens you,” Nesin explains. “They are pretty fierce animals. Like we are.”