Author Archives: Adriana Salerno

A familiar story

movieposterThursday evening, I watched the MAA special screening of A Brilliant Young Mind, starring Sally Hawkins and Asa Butterfield. The movie follows a young man on the autism spectrum who finds solace in doing mathematics. His dream is to go to the International Mathematical Olympiad, and most of the movie follows this process and his training, first by an unconventional teacher in the UK, and then at a math camp in Taipei.

I enjoyed the movie, and it was well-made (shot beautifully and brilliantly scored), with incredible acting from the three main stars: Rafe Spall was very convincing as a bitter, but kind, man struggling with MS, Butterfield brought a good balance of detachment and neediness, and Hawkins is perfect in everything she does. The main message of the movie is easily summarized by its tagline: “True genius comes from opening your heart.” Most of the movie people are obsessed by external validation: the teacher wants his student to shine, the student wants an IMO medal, the mother wants her son to love her in a way he can’t. By the end, they find value in themselves. Especially Nathan Ellis, the young hero, finds connection and love with another math competitor, reconciles with his mother, and discovers that there are things far more important than being “clever”.

Overall, I do like the message. My problem is that the structure is a very well-tread upon series of events taking the young awkward boy, who is so socially awkward he can only do math, to a young man who gets a girlfriend and (maybe) stops caring about math. The implications are that math is only for those who cannot make emotional connections, and even more so awkward, white males. There are some girls in the math teams, one of whom becomes the love interest, but her role is weakened by the fact that she supposedly only makes the team because her uncle is the coach, and then decides to quit because she doesn’t believe she is good enough. The love story is very cute, but could have been connected to the math life a little better. For example, why can’t we show that you can be in young puppy-love and still like doing math? Why did the star have to be a boy, and not a girl? My main problem with the movie is that we have seen this story many times before (most notably in Good Will Hunting), and the setting, actors, and drama of the IMO could have been much better used to tell a story with the same message: that it’s important to make human connections, and that medals and recognition are not the reason to do math.

Overall it was a pleasant movie, but it could have been much better with a few tweaks. The movie comes out in DVD at the end of the month, in case you’re interested.

All the singularities*

Karen Smith.

Karen Smith (a little blurry).

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of attending the AWM-AMS Noether Lecture, delivered by Karen Smith. Smith took us on a tour of modern algebraic geometry, and showed us how many contributions Emmy Noether made to this field of mathematics.

Smith introduced the audience to algebraic varieties (essentially sets of common zeros of polynomials), and the fact that they are everywhere in math. But her main goal was to show us the problems algebraic geometers are interested in, and in particular the question of deciding whether a variety is smooth, and if not how bad the singularities are. Her explanations of resolutions of singularities were great (and I appreciated the many pictures), and she has a level of energy and excitement that is really contagious.

The main technique for analyzing the “badness” of singularities is, instead of studying the variety itself, to study the ring of functions on the variety and reduce this to prime characteristic. This method of reducing this geometric problem to an algebraic one really goes back to Noether and the first isomorphism theorem (which Smith attributed to Noether even though the literature does not). Smith got a chuckle from the audience when she mentioned the “freshman’s dream”, in which reducing to characteristic p really allows you to say that (f+g)p=fp+gp. The upshot of this is that the p-th power map (whose fancy name is the Frobenius map) is actually a ring homomorphism (behaves nicely with addition and multiplication). By a Theorem of Kunz, a variety is smooth if the ring of functions decomposes in a nice way according to the Frobenius, so we really have reduced the problem of finding singularities to a simple algebraic problem! Finally, she mentioned some generalizations and other results by her and her collaborators.

As a fan of algebraic geometry, of course I liked this talk, but I think she did a great job for the general audience too. The link between algebra and geometry was clear, and Noether’s influence was adequately honored throughout. Really great talk indeed.

*To be sung to the tune of “Single Ladies”, by Beyonce.

All the singularities, all the singularities… If you liked it then you should have put a ring (of functions) on it!

Some Math Humor/Quotes

“My collaborators and I have been able to prove a variety… wait, that is probably not a great word to use in a math talk… a collection of results…” – Kate Thompson, AMS Contributed Paper Session in Number Theory. She later followed up with a similar joke when talking about something being “ideal”.

“I think we should do an experiment: change all the names of mathematicians, like Euler, Gauss, Lagrange, to female names, and see what happens.” – Karen Smith, AWM Noether Lecture.

Kubota standard L-series.

Kubota standard L-series.

“So, if you search for images related to standard L-series, this is what you get. This is the only image in my talk.” – Ellen Eischen, AMS Special Session in Number Theory and Cryptography, showing us some tractors.


“I’m really only going to talk about elliptic curves, but to me higher genus means any genus greater than 0.” – Dave Morrison, AMS Special Session on Higher Genus Curves and Fibrations of Higher Genus Curves in Physics and Arithmetic Geometry.

Evelyn Lamb (to Barry Cipra in the press room): Do you have any career advice?” Barry: “Marry well.”

I realize that these jokes/quotes are maybe only funny to me. Any other quotes you want to share? Post in the comments or tweet them with #jmm16.

For the WIN

The AWM panel (with cool slideshow in the background).

The AWM panel (with cool slideshow in the background).

Among the few non-committee things I did yesterday was attending the AWM Panel Discussion on “Research Collaboration Conferences for Women: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”. Moderated by Michelle Manes, and featuring panelists Maria Basterra, Susanne Brenner, Ellen Eischen, Kristin Lauter, Kathryn Leonard, and Ami Radunskaya, the panel mostly focused on spreading information about existing conferences for women. These conferences are not AWM-specific, but they have partly been sponsored by the organization.

I had the privilege of attending two of the WIN (Women in Numbers) conferences, and I was glad to see a packed audience and to hear many questions about these opportunities. These conferences started with WIN, held at Banff in 2008 and organized by Kristin Lauter, Rachel Pries, and Renate Scheidler. According to Lauter, the three were sitting at a number theory conference and realized how few women were in attendance. They wondered if it was possible that there are just not very many women in Number Theory. During lunch that same day, they decided to write down names of female number theorists off the top of their heads, and by the end they had a list of about 75 people. They decided that there was clearly something causing women not to attend, be it availability, inclusivity, and appeal of existing conferences. The goal of the conference was to focus on talking about and doing mathematics, with senior mathematicians at the helm of various projects, and mentoring early-career mathematicians and advanced graduate students. They figured that was the critical transition period in which women were dropping off research mathematics. Another goal was to have a proceedings volume attached to the meetings, in part to have some end result for the participants, but also to encourage continued collaboration and research from each of the groups.

Now, the Women In (Blank) conferences have spread to other areas, like WIT (Women in Topology), WISh (Women in Shape – about shape modeling), WhAM (I forget this acronym), and others. In fact, I have been having fun thinking of other acronyms and how to fit them to this conference (someone needs to come up with a conference for WICKED or WIRED).  All of these conferences have followed similar formats: focus on research, pick problems and groups ahead of time, create and maintain an email list and network, and publish a proceedings volume.

Two recent developments make these conferences much easier to plan. The first is that there is now a Springer series devoted to AWM proceedings. The second, more exciting, and more recent one is the award of an ADVANCE grant to the AWM by the NSF. This grant is intended for the sole purpose of creating, supporting, and encouraging more of these types of conferences. What was once an isolated endeavor of motivated individuals is now supported by an organization whose goal is to promote participation in mathematics by women. How cool, right?

Of course, there are many objections to things like this. Some of the common ones are: is it OK to exclude men from this? Are women going to be able to collaborate with men if they only go to these conferences? Is it detrimental to graduate students to have publications in these proceedings rather than by themselves on a “real” journal? These questions have been asked many times.

To the first one, someone in the audience (I forget who, my apologies) gave the best answer: it would be unfair to have conferences for only women if the system was actually fair. But, the mathematics world is not fair in its treatment of men and women (even though it has gotten better), so giving the underprivileged group a small advantage can only tip things in the direction of fairness. Of course, many people will disagree with this statement, but I found it very pleasing.

The second question was a little silly if you think about it: what is the problem if a woman somehow decided to publish only with other women? How is this different from what men have been doing for centuries? I really didn’t understand the point of this question.

To the third, Lauter gave a great answer. These proceedings are actually peer reviewed very seriously, and many of the papers published are high caliber research. And how can a publication hurt you, really?

Anyway, I left excited about coming up with a new acronym and organizing a new conference myself. Would you?

The panel shows off some of the proceedings volumes.

The panel shows off some of the proceedings volumes.


Meetings survival tips: Knitting in committee meetings

My soon-to-be-scarf, courtesy of the AWM Executive Committee, the MAA FOCUS Editorial Board, and the AWM Business Meeting.

My soon-to-be-scarf, courtesy of the AWM Executive Committee, the MAA FOCUS Editorial Board, and the AWM Business Meeting.

I spent a large chunk of my day yesterday like many “grown-up” mathematicians do at the JMM: in committee/editorial board/business meetings. Don’t feel too bad for me though, I also went to a couple of receptions (mathematicians never outgrow the need for free food).  More importantly, though, I have found an excellent coping mechanism (and I know I’m not the only one): I bring my knitting.

You would think this might distract me from the content of the discussion (and you may even think that’s the reason I bring my knitting to meetings), but in fact it has the opposite effect: focusing on one thing actually helps me focus on the discussion. I am not good enough yet that I can read or make my own comments while knitting, though, so I tend to stop for those things. But it does make things in turns more interesting and easier to endure.

I mean, committee meetings are about approving motions, discussing future action, and in general deciding important things about the committee you’re in, so they need to happen. But more of these things are routine, we usually always agree, and they are by nature not super-exciting. So having my knitting makes it all seem more productive somehow: I helped make decisions AND in the end there is something pretty to show for it (meaning the thing I was knitting).

I’m sure people have other mechanisms for keeping themselves engaged and not too bored during a meeting, but this one is my favorite. It definitely is better than daydreaming (what I am prone to do when people are talking a lot) or looking at my phone (which people do way too much). How about you, any tips on how you deal with long business or committee meetings?

Addendum: If you’re interested in knitting and other crafty things, make sure you check out the Knitting Circle at 8:15pm tonight in the Sheraton Grand Ballroom D (on the 2nd floor).