by Larry Dunn, August 27, 2020

Week six of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, sent me spinning down a memory rabbit hole to my fourth grade arithmetic classes at Shrine of the Little Flower elementary school in Royal Oak, Michigan.

Under the title of “Slicing and Dicing,” we delved in to Boolean logic, the conceptual framework underlying digital processing of signals with discrete voltages, i.e., the entirety of our computerized modern world. George Boole (1815–1864), a mostly self-taught English mathematician, pioneered the idea of applying the mechanisms of algebra to the study of logic, thereby revolutionizing the field. His application of formal methods to studying phenomena that exist in only one of two states − true or false, on or off, etc. − eventually found powerful application in the development of computing and other forms of electronic processing.

Now, flash forward about two centuries. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union propelled Sputnik-1 into an elliptical low-earth orbit, shocking the world. Most unnerved was the USSR’s global arch-rival, the United States, where government scientists were caught off guard that the Soviets had sufficiently advanced their space rocket technology (which we had both harvested from Germany as part of the settlement of WWII) to be able to put a satellite into orbit. The launch set off the Space Race, a new battlefield in the Cold War. And it also precipitated the Sputnik Crisis in American education, a flurry of activity aimed at closing the substantial math and science gap between students in the USA and those in the USSR. Simply put, they were developing rocket scientists and we were not.

In the fall of 1958, my 4th grade class at the Shrine elementary school was suddenly no longer studying arithmetic, we were studying New Math. Instead of a commercially printed arithmetic textbook, we had a succession of mimeographed and stapled pamphlets on topics like the number line; Boolean logic and it’s derivative, the binary number system; and number system bases, like binary (0 through 1), decimal (0 through 9), and hexadecimal (0 through 9, A, B, C, D, E, F). This was purported, correctly I think, to be a better way to prepare us conceptually to understand and excel at the more advanced forms of mathematics and computer technology needed to engineer space exploration.

For me, and probably some others in my class, New Math was more like a fun game than the drudgery of arithmetic (how could it take us eight years of that to get ready for algebra, in high school?). Of course there were some who were confused, though perhaps no less confused than they were with arithmetic.

Many parents in our extremely conservative suburban Detroit enclave were incensed by this sudden change in the curriculum. “If arithmetic was good enough for teaching us, then by god it’s good enough for teaching Jimmy and Sally!” And some no doubt thought the New Math was a communist plot, because many in our parish saw a communist plot lurking behind every lamppost. So the New Math experiment in our school didn’t last very long, and soon we were back to learning good old arithmetic. It’s impact in the broader society was more substantial in the first couple of decades after it was launched. However, New Math eventually was a victim of the 80s and 90s return to the basic ABCs. Interestingly, some of the concepts are finding their way back into the math curriculum for elementary and secondary education in the USA, through the Common Core movement, once again vexing some students, teachers, and parents. So the history and impact of New Math on American education remains controversial.

For myself, I next encountered these ideas when I started studying computer science at Elmhurst College, outside Chicago, in 1980. A required course in advanced algebra, called Functions, began with the number line, Boolean logic, and set theory. I felt right at home.

With the focus of our Synth in Place class being on making electronic sounds, it feels appropriate to close with the signals sent from space by Sputnik-1, captured by radio enthusiasts as it spun around the globe in 1957. Maybe someone in the class will utilize or replicate these sounds in their project.

Stay tuned.