Hamming It Up At Hampshire
Mathematics Gone Hogwild
Saturday, October 17, 11 a.m., Dartmouth Weekend. Sketched on the path in front of Widener is the image of a three-foot yellow pig with a 17 on its side. Individuals begin drifting toward the spot, until about 16 Harvard, Yale and MIT students are huddling around the drawing. Groups of bleary-eyed visitors, sporting green sweatshirts, green pants and hangovers, openly gape at the ritual. As if on cue, the huddlers turn and flash their t-shirts, each displaying a yellow pig on the front, and the number 17 on the back.
When David Kelly founded the Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics program in 1970, he probably didn't know he was about to start a cult. Or perhaps he did. He's not telling.
The Hampshire math program, based in Amherst, is a six-week haven for high school students who believe that math is fun. Participants come to the program from all parts of the country with different backgrounds and different expectations; they leave with happy memories, a feeling of accomplishment, and a startling affinity for yellow pigs and the number 17.
Queried about the symbols on his t-shirt, a Hampshirite will usually hedge the question: "Can't you see they're wonderful?" The implication, as Louis Armstrong put it, is, "If you have to ask what it is, you'll never know." Then again, until they entered the program, most Hampshirites had no idea what the Yellow Pig and the number 17 meant, either.
Roughly half of the 60 or so students in the program each year are from New York City, while most of the rest are from other large cities and their suburbs. About four-fifths are male. A significant number of Hampshire alumni fill up the Ivy Leagues: 18 out of the 63 Hampshire '80 students are at Harvard, along with three of the faculty.
The aim of the program is to teach talented high school students certain areas of mathematics which they might not otherwise encounter untillate in college. The atmosphere, more like camp than summer school, encourages cooperation, rather than competition, among students. There are no tests, and students work together to solve problems, instead of simply being taught the formula and proofs. In addition to the academics, alumni remember Hampshire for Frisbee, volleyball. Monty Python, juggling, 3 a.m. fire drills, and "vast silliness."
But what brings the whole program together, in a lot of the participants' minds, is the Yellow Pig and the number 17. Although different activities and events characterize different years (juggling was very popular in 1979, for instance, but not in 1980), Kelly, associate professor of mathematics at Hampshire College, ensures that each generation is well-schooled in lore about YP17. July 17 is Yellow Pig Day, when alumni from all over the country return to the Hampshire campus for the annual reunion. On that day, Kelly gives his renowned lecture on "The History of 17," and relates all the facts he has collected about the number over the past year, and students and alumni make the official Yellow Pig t-shirt.
The origin of the Yellow Pig is shrouded in obscurity: Kelly refuses to divulge the secret. Of the many "creation myths," though, Benji N. Fisher '85 offers the most probable explanation: "In Princeton about 30 years ago. David Kelly and Michael Spivak (author of several math textbooks) were drinking buddies, and instead of seeing pink elephants, they saw yellow pigs."
The Yellow Pig first appeared in Spivak's book Calculus, which is "Dedicated to the Memory of Y.P." The index entry "Pig, Yellow" refers the reader to page 314, where he finds the sentence. "In this case we will go whole hog..." The Yellow Pig reappeared on the covers of each volume of Spivak's five-volume Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry. While some picture the Yellow Pig himself, others are more subtle: Volume II, upon close examination, shows a cowering cop.
The number 17 became inextricably linked with the Yellow Pig much later, when it came to Kelly's attention that the Yellow Pig has 17 eye-lashes--eight on the left eye and nine on the right. (Some radicals insist that there are ten on the left eye and seven on the right.)
According to Kelly, 17 is the "random number." In other words, the chances are more than random that a random number will be divisible by 17. A Masters and Johnson study found that the average male has a sex-related thought every 17 seconds; there are 17 steps from the landing to the door in Sherlock Holmes' house at 221b (13 x 17b) Baker Street; Harvard's College Board code is 3434 (17 times 202); and the world record for sitting in a tub of tomato ketchup is 17 hours.
Although Kelly insists the Yellow Pig is not a cult, a lot of Hampshirites act as if it were. Over the years, various "counter-cults" have developed: Steve Maurer, who taught at Hampshire for two years, introduced the Yellow Pig's antithesis--the Pink Pig, which is closely associated with the number 23, and produced evidence proving the ascendancy of 23 over 17. (Adherents to the Yellow Pig consider 23 the "ickiest" number of them all.) For a while, Pink Pig t-shirts began to appear, but the era of the interloper, though still remembered, was short-lived.
In 1978 one sect tried to deal with the situation diplomatically by creating the Peace Pig, which has yellow and pink stripes and is linked to the number 20--the average of 17 and 23. Shorter fads were green pigs (the number 6) and blue pigs (the number 19).
The absurdity of the Yellow Pig adds a necessary note of humor into the otherwise serious nature of the program. The obvious silliness of Yellow Pig references is accessible to students who might not be sophisticated enough to appreciate the joke. "What's purple and commutes? Answer: An Abelian grape.
Hampshire participants resist classification, but the bottom line for many is a feeling of isolation. "A talent for mathematics is somehow the worst thing a young person can have, to his compatriots, you grow up defending it," says Jonathan Siegel '84, a Hampshire alumnus. For most "ordinary" high school students, math is something you have to get over with, but certainly shouldn't enjoy. Many Hampshirites say they spent years hiding their love of math in school, even while pursuing it, so as to be more socially "acceptable." For such students the liberating effect of the program is enhanced by the elitist symbol of YP17; one alumnus calls it a "weirdness we definitely have in common," explaining. "You know, and the other program people know, but nobody else knows."
Although the most enthusiastic followers of the Yellow Pig and the number 17 are likely to be those actually at Hampshire, the symbols take on a special significance after leaving the program. One of the remarkable aspects of Hampshire is how close people remain even after graduating. One alumnus, a Harvard freshman, described the program as "More than just a summer class... it's really a community. There's a big need to preserve that sense of community beyond the program." Many alumni wear their YP17 t-shirts on the 17th of every month, at least for a few years. Almost every Hampshirite has some story to tell of wearing the t-shirt and being stopped by previous alumni in a store, on the street, or in the subway.
When Hampshire alumni communicate, they often use these symbols. People may draw pigs on stationery, pass along new facts about 17, or give yellow pigs as gifts. This last is the most challenging, since yellow pigs are hard to come by these days. Kelly has the largest known collection, and is aiming for 289, or 17 squared. Kelly sends all his letters on yellow paper, and maintains a tradition of beginning each letter with words whose initials are Y and P, as well as including 17 interesting facts about 17.
Until last year, the program was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Unfortunately, when Washington forced the NSF to trim its fat, the Yellow Pig got the axe. There was no 1981 session, and students attending the program this summer will have to pay full rate. Meanwhile. Kelly continues his quest for new sources of funding, in the hope that future generations of much students will be free to spread the word--and the member.