Zero our hero: a math conference in Cambodia with the goal of zero waste

N2The Amir D. Aczel Foundation, in collaboration with the math department of the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), and the Cambodian Ministry of Education, held a successful international symposium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 19-20, 2019, on the role of the numeral zero in mathematics. Six hundred first year math students, faculty, and visitors and invited speakers from Europe, North America and Asia heard talks on zero and how it developed in the East: why is the concept of zero so important in math? How does zero in math relates to zero in philosophy/culture? How do the stories we tell about math and mathematicians change over time? Who invented zero? How do we teach our students about zero? Is the symbol of zero found in Cambodia the world’s oldest? We also wanted to ensure that we reduced our carbon footprint as much as possible—we were striving for a (close to) zero-waste event. Zero, in our event, was to be the hero, both in terms of our symposium’s focus, and in our approach to its environmental impact.

The symposium included talks by Cambodians on “careers using mathematics,” with the goal of informing math students–and their faculty–about future options. Currently, most RUPP math students become teachers in schools throughout Cambodia, so finding ways to excite students to learn math and science is important. The final day also included conversations with Cambodians about what their country needs most in math education going forward. We hope that relationships begun during the symposium will lead to future collaborations and projects. And for us–the Amir D. Aczel Foundation–our involvement with Cambodia has just begun!

The Khmer Zero

The idea for the conference grew out of the rediscovery in 2015 of one of the oldest—possibly the oldest—representations of zero yet found. In 1932, French scholar George Cœdès translated and catalogued (K-127) an ancient Khmer inscription. Remarkably, he found that this inscription contained a date with a symbol representing zero. Before this, scholars believed that our numbers had to have come from the West: Greece or Arabia. The discovery of the zero in Cambodia definitively proved that zero originated in the East, correcting long-held bias in the history of mathematics.

This inscription was thought lost during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Amir Aczel rediscovered this stone, containing a date that includes a small dot to represent zero. His book, Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Zero, tells the story of his search for this stone. K-127 is now beautifully displayed in the National Museum of Cambodia, with support from the Aczel Foundation.

The Khmer Rouge destroyed the educational infrastructure of Cambodia. Now, as Cambodia seeks to develop its economy and grapple with difficult environmental and other problems, the country is developing math and science education both in its large cities and rural communities. The conference organizers hoped to use the story of the Khmer zero K-127 to inspire young Cambodians to pursue education in mathematics. We are proud of our role in this event.

Striving for Zero Waste

In addition to challenges related to infrastructure for education, another key issue in Cambodia is environmental degradation, particularly related to plastic pollution. For example, tourism in Cambodia produces 4.6 million water bottles monthly without recycling. In Phnom Penh alone 10 million plastic bags are used are used each day.

In planning the conference, we wanted to make the event as close to zero waste as possible.

The first step was to avoid plastic bag use. Traditionally, Cambodian foods and markets used banana or lotus leaves to wrap up food. However, beginning in the early 1990s they have been turning to single-use plastic bags rather than the banana leaves and other organic materials, leading to a serious waste-management problem.A90

We sourced our meals from a local campus catering company, which used banana leaves to wrap up the deserts and many of the finger foods served in the receptions. Where banana leaves didn’t do the trick, we made sure to rent dishes and cutlery rather than rely on single-use plastic products.

Another relatively easy way to promote conservation and reduce waste was by bringing our own conference bags—printed with our logo—to help prevent unnecessary waste, and that could be used as future shopping bags. Our conference schedule materials were circulated online.

Key Challenges: Water

A key barrier to reducing our symposium’s carbon footprint was related to water. Cambodia has a big issue with water quality, with estimates that 4 million Cambodians do not have access to clean water. It was hard to avoid bottled water. Where water purification facilities existed, people could refill their water bottles. In areas with many tourists such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap there is a push for restaurants and hotels to establish “water refill stations” to reduce reliance on single-use plastic bottles. And of course, hacking open a young coconut for fresh coconut water was always an exciting alternative to water.N8

A Greener Future

During the conference in Cambodia, we learned more about some of the work local organizations and individuals are doing about plastic pollution. To take one example, Plastic Free Southeast Asia (PFSE) runs workshops to help local businesses and groups develop ideas on how to manage plastic waste. They also provide consulting to organizations in how to run low-waste, plastic-free conferences. Cambodia has participated in “Plastic Free July” since 2015 and is looking forward again to promoting sustainability by encouraging participants to give up plastics for a month in July 2019. PFSE has also announced a label to reward businesses that have eliminated single use plastics.

While waste management is still a huge problem in Cambodia, we were impressed by the commitment of Cambodians to finding solutions and already looking forward to our next visit!

A version of this blog was published by Leaders in Energy.



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