Numbers Game
Erik Cheever '82
Laurence Kesterson
“To have thousands of people using it was never my goal,” Erik Cheever ’82 says about his website. “But it’s satisfying.” See
Erik cheever ’82
Engineering Maven

Adding Something Positive

His mathematics website is a global hit
by Ryan Dougherty
Nearly 20 years ago, Erik Cheever ’82 created a simple web resource to help him organize his mathematics courses. Last year, one of its pages, a no-frills breakdown of linear algebra, drew more Google searches than the entire Swarthmore homepage.

Find that surprising? You’re not alone.

“I had no idea — I haven’t touched that [part of the website] in 20 years,” says Cheever, the Edward Hicks Magill Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, who retired from the College in May. “To have thousands of people using it was never really my goal, but it’s satisfying.”

In the early days of the site, Cheever would post notes from lectures, as an aid to his students. But the site grew, demonstrating an appeal to a broader community.

Erik cheever ’82
Engineering Maven
“I wanted to make well-written and easily used resources available for all,” says Cheever, noting the prohibitive cost of textbooks. The site still looks mid-’90s; you can practically hear the AOL dial-up squeal. But it boasts an array of tools and tutorials for anyone seeking to master linear physical systems analysis. And the clicks, from as far as India, keep coming. A second subpage, on binary numbers, also cracked the top five in Google searches among all Swarthmore-hosted sites last year.

Cheever ascribes the site’s success to the “quick and dirty” mathematical estimates it outlines, as well as animations to help users visualize what they’re learning. Ames Bielenberg ’12 helped with the former, and Patrick Wheeler ’23, with a subpage on Bode plots, while they were students. Cheever worked on the site when he wasn’t teaching at the College, and that work continues in retirement. He has done a lot of other programming in his life, but says none has been as rewarding.

“I enjoy doing it, and see it as a way of giving back,” he says, “just to add something positive.” It’s not a solitary pursuit: Cheever receives regular communication from visitors to the site. A few years ago, around the holidays, he received five or six frantic messages when his corner of the College’s website was down. There are also users who don’t hesitate to let Cheever know about typos, and still another subsection of users who amuse him.

“Sometimes it’s people who are clearly just asking me to do their homework for them,” he says.