Category Archives: Day 3

Mathematics as a means for human flourishing

One of the highlights of these meetings for me has been the MAA Retiring Presidential Address by Francis Su on Friday morning, titled “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”.

Francis Su, outgoing President of the MAA, and one of my favorite people.

Francis Su, outgoing President of the MAA, and one of my favorite people. Photo credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography

Su started by inviting us to think about who does mathematicsHe told us about Christopher, an inmate who was passionate about learning mathematics and wanted to pursue even given his unfortunate circumstances. The talk was peppered throughout with quotes from Simone Weil, philosopher, mystic, political activist, and sister to famous mathematician Andre Weil. She loved mathematics but felt almost incompetent next to her talented brother. So who does mathematics? Some people, like Christopher and Simone, are repeatedly given the message that they don’t belong and that they will not be successful in mathematics. Su’s charge to the audience is to think about a different question: why should we be encouraging people to do mathematics? 

Francis makes us think. Pictured left to right, (only the people I recognize) Matt deLong, Talithia Washington, and maybe that's Darryl Yong right next to Talithia.

Francis makes us think. Pictured left to right, Matt Boelkins, Matt deLong, Talithia Williams, and maybe that’s Darryl Yong right next to Talithia. Photo credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography

The answer is simple: mathematics helps people flourish and the practice of mathematics cultivates virtue. And related to virtue are five essential human desires: play, beauty, truth, justice, and love. All of these can be attained through the practice of mathematics. We can teach students to play by helping them DO mathematics (as in active learning classrooms); we can appreciate the beauty of a proof or result; in an era of post-truth, we have a duty to help people to see the world critically and carefully; we can develop a more just society by including everyone and being mindful of implicit bias and not keeping math an elitist subject; and we can show love for others by supporting and encouraging our peers and students, and creating community.

Su sprinkled stories from his own life, stories shared by others, quotes, and lessons throughout the talk, giving it a deeply emotional and human dimension. His voice broke a couple of times, especially when talking about injustice in mathematics. I think that is where Su’s talent for public speaking lies is in this unique ability to talk about high-level ideas and connecting to them in a deeply personal level. He is really gifted at this, and from the standing ovation he received at the end, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking this.

Justice.To be ever ready to admit that another person is something quite different from what we read when he is there (or when we think about him). Or rather, to read in him that he is certainly something different, perhaps something completely different from what we read in him. Every being cries out silently to be read differently. --- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Justice. To be ever ready to admit that another person is something quite different from what we read when he is there (or when we think about him). Or rather, to read in him that he is certainly something different, perhaps something completely different from what we read in him. Every being cries out silently to be read differently. — Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

His final challenge to the audience was this: to find a student who is struggling and become her advocate (I love his constant use of female pronouns as the default).

I’m pretty sure I can’t do this talk the justice it deserves, but I just wanted to share my thoughts for anyone who wasn’t able to be there. If you want to watch a (slightly jumpy, sometimes sideways) video of the talk you can go to the MAA’s facebook page. Francis tells me he will post a transcript of the talk soon on his blog. (Update: There is a transcript now! This is a must read for all.)

MAA Undergraduate Poster Session

The JMM MAA Undergraduate Student Poster session!

The JMM MAA Undergraduate Student Poster session!

Undergrads are amazing these days!  At least at the MAA Undergraduate Student Poster Session, anyway.  Looking around at the over 200 posters, I came to the conclusion that I was a real underachiever in those days.  These students are doing really exciting things.  They are confident, they are polished, they are pretty much killing it. Here are a few scenes from the floor:

Shaquille Dixon of Costal Carolina University presented a poster on space filling curves. His project was inspired by a YouTube video, which got Shaquille thinking about how to change an image into an audible signal for the visually impaired.

Shaquille Dixon of Costal Carolina University presented a poster on space filling curves. His project was inspired by a YouTube video, which got Shaquille thinking about how to change an image into an audible signal for the visually impaired.

Anne Marie Crinnion, Harvard, explains her poster to Bjorn Poonen of MIT.

Anne Marie Crinnion, Harvard, explains her poster to Bjorn Poonen of MIT.  Anne Marie’s poster describes her work using graph theory to develop a model for human speech recognition.

Thayer Meyer, of Virginia Military Institute, began his poster with a very heavy question: "What is the shape of reality?"

Thayer Meyer, of Virginia Military Institute, began his poster with a very heavy question: “What is the shape of the universe?”

Kayla Perez of The Evergreen State College and Elsa Magness of Seattle University presented a poster on Knot Lineage. Their poster included their own REU work with Alison Heinrich and Brianna Zimmer on the Trefoil knot.

Kayla Perez of The Evergreen State College and Elsa Magness of Seattle University presented a poster on Knot Lineage. Their poster included their own REU work with Alison Heinrich and Brianna Zimmer on the Trefoil knot.

Three judges visited each poster and talked with the student.  The top posters will receive glory and fame tomorrow morning at 9 AM, and all students will get written feedback from the judges.  The MAA also  provided travel funding for select students to come to the JMM and present their posters.  Here, MAA Programs Coordinator Margaret Maurer and Dora Cardenas Ahmadi, also of the MAA, cut apart and sort the ballots.  Dora and Margaret swear that next year the ballots are going digital.

Dora Ahmadi and Margaret Maurer of the MAA processing the judging slips.

Dora Ahmadi and Margaret Maurer of the MAA processing the judging slips.

Terrence Tao and the Erdős Discrepancy Problem

Kannan Soundararajan talks about Terrence Tao's solution to the Erdős Discrepancy Problem.

Kannan Soundararajan talks about Terrence Tao’s solution to the Erdős Discrepancy Problem.

I just came from one of the afternoon talks of the Current Events Bulletin. This series of lectures has been going on at the JMM since 2003 and they are always tremendously well done. The idea is to present a reasonably entry level view of a trendy research topic from the past year, presented by someone who didn’t actually do the research. This year I saw Kannan Soundararajan (Stanford University) present on Terrence Tao’s (UCLA) work on the Erdős Discrepancy Problem.

Imagine you are on an infinite walkway that bends back and forth, with a pit of snakes on each side. You need to decide to turn right or left as you walk to avoid falling into the pit of snakes. Is there any way to determine where you’ll end up? Now remove the snake put and add an 80 year old question in mathematics, and you’re looking at the Erdős Discrepancy Problem.

I blogged about this breakthrough several months ago, you can read it here at the AMS blog on math blogs. But in a nutshell, the problem asks if that partial sums of a completely multiplicative function f, that is f(mn)=f(m)f(n), from the natural numbers to {±1} are unbounded. And the answer, as shown by Tao and reported today by Soundararajan is YES!

For a short explanation of the methods of proof (which I won’t attempt here), check out Soundararajan’s article in the Current Events Bulletin booklet. As with many mathematical results, it’s not always the result itself that’s so valuable, but sometimes the techniques developed, or the implications of the results. And Soundararajan said as much during his talk, remarking “Tao’s proof of the the Erdős Discrepancy Problem is the opposite of the canary in the coal mine.” The canary means bad things are going to happen, and this proof likely means good things are going to happen.

If you’re looking for good things to do this evening, the AWM Poster Session is this evening 6:00-7:15 in Marquis Ballroom Prefunction, Marquis Level, Marriott Marquis, and Mathematically Bent Theater is from 6:00 to 7:00 in the Regency Ballroom VII, Ballroom Level, Hyatt Regency.

The Exhibitor Angle

There is so much happening at the JMM! Math talks, panels, receptions, and really long lines at Starbucks. But there’s more! Over in the Hyatt, down a series of escalators is the world of the exhibitors.

On Wednesday the joints heads of the societies of the JMM cut the ribbon on the exhibit hall.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Photo Credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Don’t get too excited, that’s sparking apple cider in those champagne flutes. The event was to celebrate the naming of Catherine A. Roberts as the new executive director of the AMS.

Today I had a chance to meet with several exhibitors from Cengage for a focus group on basic skills and student preparedness. I always love participating in these focus groups. They typically bring together a group of 10 faculty from diverse institutions to talk about the hot topic of the day with the goal of improving their textbooks and online supplementary course materials. Today we talked about basic skills, and how to serve students form diverse background. The STEM vs. non-STEM divide, and even within STEM the STE vs M divide. One other group member commented at the end, “wow, this was really great, I’m not sure what I learned here, but it’s good to know I’m not alone.” Several publishers host these focus groups at the JMM each year, and if it’s something you’re interested in you should try to get on board for one next year.

All that Sage swag.

All that Sage swag.

The exhibit hall is also a great place to get swag to trick out your name tag. I always make sure to stop by the Sage booth for their (now scratch resistant) stickers and a gold dot for Project NExT. I think there’s also (almost always) free coffee down in the exhibit hall, and you’re guaranteed to run into fun people if you wander around for a few moments.

The JMM Maze

I have been coming to the JMM for 9 years, but never have I been so confused by the locations of talks and the general layout of the meetings. There is an International Tower in the Hyatt and an International Level in the Marriott, there is an Atrium, a Lobby, but both could be either, there are too many Ballrooms to count, there are TWO food courts (which I found out about when trying to meet people for lunch at the food court)….

But don’t worry, I found an accurate map that might help. Best of luck out there! And remember there are TWO FOOD COURTS.

Escher's "Relativity".

Escher’s “Relativity”.

 

Friday!!

We are taking hot news tips on the retro newsroom phone...

We are taking hot news tips on the retro newsroom phone…

...and eating toasted bagels. This is the life.

…and eating toasted bagels. This is the life.

Starting off the second half of the JMM with bagels and coffee in the pressroom, because the line at Starbucks is yet again incredibly long.  The pressroom is extra deluxe today, as well–the caterers even brought a toaster for the bagels!

Lots of great events today.  Here are a few places that the JMM bloggers will be hanging out:

Francis Su’s MAA Retiring Presidential Address is sure to be awesome.  I mean, it’s entitled “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”–this is something I need to know about.  Friday, January 6, 2017, 9:00 a.m.-9:50 a.m. Atrium Ballroom, Atrium Level, Marriott Marquis Atlanta.

Anna Wienhard, Heidelberg University, gives an AMS Invited Address: “A Tale of Rigidity and Flexibility – Discrete Subgroups of Higher Rank Lie Groups”  Friday, January 6, 2017, 10:05 a.m.-10:55 a.m. Atrium Ballroom, Atrium Level, Marriott Marquis.

The Current Events Bulletin is a chance to learn about the most current developments in mathematics from expert mathematicians in different fields, presented for non-experts. According to founder David Eisenbud, “The Current Events Bulletin Session at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, begun in 2003, is an event where the speakers do not report on their own work, but survey some of the most interesting current developments in mathematics, pure and applied.  The wonderful tradition of the Bourbaki Seminar is an inspiration, but we aim for more accessible treatments and a wider range of subjects.”  These talks happen today, 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Imperial Ballroom A, Marquis Level, Marriott Marquis.

Public viewing of the MAA Undergraduate Student Poster Session takes place today, 4:30 p.m.-6:00 p.m. Marquis Ballroom, Marquis Level, Marriott Marquis.