Awkward Photos of Amazing Talks

have been to many great talks the Joint Meetings so far. I wanted to share a few of my favorites with you here, but the photos I took are, well, awkward. Luckily the AMS has real photographers to capture the live visual spirit of these talks better than I could. But, in the spirit of the vast majority of JMM talk photos, here is my offering of terrible photos of great talks. I have foregone even cropping these (so you can truly imagine yourself in the audience).

William Cook’s talk “Information, computation, optimization: Connecting the dots in the traveling salesman problem”.

Let’s start with William Cook’s MAA Invited Lecture. Cook’s talk, about solving the TSP and related problems, was a wonder of computation, theory, history, and beautiful visualizations. Among many other achievements, he and his team have managed to compute the optimal pub-crawl route to visit all of the pubs in the UK. This was the first time I’d heard of Julia Robinson’s work on the related “assignment problem,” and Cook’s explanation of how the TSP can be tackled with linear programming was very illuminating and clear.

James Tanton’s “HOW MANY DEGREES ARE IN A MARTIAN CIRCLE? And other human (and non-human) questions one should ask about everyday mathematics”.

James Tanton gave Friday’s MAA Invited Lecture for Students, from which I learned SO many surprising things.  From the origin of the name of the sine function to finger multiplication, I wondered how I had never known this, and how someone was able to make me laugh so much while teaching me.  I had run into Tanton’s work while developing math circle problems, but this was the first time I had seen his talk in person.  I will not miss a chance to see him speak again.

Tadashi Tokieda’s talk, “Toy Models”.

Tadashi Tokieda’s MAA Invited Address was possibly the most fun and wonder-filled math talk I have ever seen.  He illustrated surprising physical and mathematical phenomena with simple toys.  His way of speaking and joking with the audience as he explains and illustrates is extremely charming. I wish that basically every scientist I know could have been there.

Moon Duchin’s “Political Geometry: Voting Districts, ‘Compactness’, and Ideas about Fairness”.

The MAA-AMS-SIAM Gerald and Judith Porter Public Lecture is sort of a grand finale to the big JMM lectures, and this one was a perfect conclusion. Or beginning, really—Moon Duchin’s lecture on using mathematics to describe and potentially fight gerrymandering was inspiring.  Perhaps even, as an audience member said during the Q&A period, “historic”.  Duchin revealed how both simple and sophisticated mathematics have essential roles in preserving/resurrecting American democracy. And she has plans for how we can all get involved!  Sign me up!

Mathematically Bent Theater

Last night Colin Adams and the Mobiusbandaid Players performed four fantastic skits to a standing-room-only audience. The skits are a must-see JMM event!

The first was a tale of thievery among mathematicians in the old wild west mining finite fields for theorems.

The hero (Andrea Young, left), a horse (Adam Boocher, right) and the villain (Richard Bedient, behind)

The villain tried to steal a theorem, unfortunately his horse bears the brunt of the retaliation.

There was a skit in which a family held an intervention for their pre-med son, who turned to math. And one where an editor and a reviewer conspired against an author. Finally, there was an address by the new president of the AMS, who promised to build a wall between the AMS and MAA offices in DC.

Colin Adams, “Make math great again! No more square roots… And from now on (A+B)^2 = A^2 + B^2.”

Potent quotables

Here are a few of my favorite “quotes” from the meetings so far (“”quotes”” instead of “quotes” because I did not write all of these down carefully, and so they are more like paraphrased/remembered versions of quotes).

“In mathematics, and more generally STEM, we teach to exclude. We teach in a way meant to weed people out of our courses, with the idea that only the “best” should survive. Math is not going to be fair and equitable until we change this culture.” Karen Saxe, AWM panel on Using mathematics in activism

“I don’t really buy into the idea of progress, although I will vote for it. What I really want to do is to burn it all down.” Piper Harron, AWM panel on Using mathematics in activism

AMS Education and Diversity Panel: (left to right) Helen Grundman, Edray Goins, Richard Laugesen, Richard McGehee, and Katrin Wehrheim.

“This is what I call the tragedy of the linear order. We think mathematicians are ranked linearly, like there’s a best mathematician, a second best mathematician, etc. We do this too with jobs. There is no such thing, and we must accept that.” Richard McGehee, AMS Education and Diversity Department Panel on Strategies for Diversifying Graduate Mathematics Programs

“There is a difference between an adviser and a mentor. You need an adviser for your Ph.D., but you should also find a mentor.” Edray Goins, AMS Education and Diversity Department Panel on Strategies for Diversifying Graduate Mathematics Programs

“We need some sort of database that records what percentage of students that are accepted into graduate programs actually pass their quals, and how many finish their Ph.D.” Katrin Wehrheim, AMS Education and Diversity Department Panel on Strategies for Diversifying Graduate Mathematics Programs

Enrique Trevino.

“Little know fact, although maybe known to many of you: Lagrange was actually Italian, not French. His name was Giuseppe Ludovico Lagrange, if I’m not mistaken.” Enrique Trevino, AMS Special Session on a Showcase of Number Theory at Liberal Arts Colleges. Some people nodded, but most people had their minds blown by this fact (myself included).

Out in Mathematics Panel (left to right): Juliette Bruce, Shelly Bouchat, Frank Farris, Ron Buckmire, Emily Riehl, and moderator Lily Khadjavi.

“I may look very well adjusted and happy, which I am, but most people don’t know that in the 80s I was very depressed — almost suicidal — because I felt so alone. I am here to tell you that it does get better.” Frank Farris, MAA panel on Out in Mathematics (co-sponsored by Spectra, the association for LGBTQ mathematicians).

“I just get a rush of adrenaline and then I speak my mind. It doesn’t always go very well. ” Emily Riehl, MAA panel on Out in Mathematics, when asked by moderator Lily Khadjavi about how she manages to be so brave.

And a bonus quote from my meeting with an editorial board I serve on. I saw what is possibly the best example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in math, when shown an excerpt of a response email to a paper rejection (a perfectly nice rejection, at that).

“I can tell your board is inept, because it is trivial to confirm the proof […] I am not surprised they are lazy and dismissive. My paper is the most brilliant paper ever written on the subject. […] Whoops, it’s the biggest blunder that mathematics has ever made, as a whole. This paper separates the men from the boys…” — Anonymous

Cat Cafe

If the frenzied environment of the JMM has got you flustered, perhaps a feline environment is what you need. I stumbled across The Cat Cafe on Google Maps and immediately recognized it as a game changer.

Game changer

I heard others had been escaping to the cafe and so I knew I had to go. I ran into a couple JMM attendees while there.

Tabatha, a post-doc at Purdue, has spent most of the JMM napping, but hopes to catch it’s tail end.

Tammy is tuckered after chasing down every string theory talk she could find.

Ernie forgot to secure funding to go to the JMM and tried to borrow my badge.

Schrodinger wasn’t sure he’d make it to the JMM and is glad to be attending. Here he is reflecting on category theory.

Wow. Everyone here is exhausted.

Not Ernie.

The Cat Cafe is open daily from 8:00-3:00.

Out in Math

It was really difficult to decide what talks to go to Thursday afternoon, so much was happening at once! But I’m really glad I ended up going to the MAA Panel on Out in Mathematics. The panel focused on issues that LGBTQ mathematicians can face when dealing with students, administrators, colleagues, and potential employers. Audience members shared their own stories and difficulties. Despite whatever challenges we may face after returning home, it was moving to be together in a safe, supportive space where people could share and work through some of those challenges.

Juliette Bruce, Shelly Bouchat, Frank Farris, Ron Buckmire, and Emily Riehl

It was upsetting (though sadly not that surprising) to hear about some of the harassment and discrimination that continues today. Though discomforting, sometimes those are the most productive and important feelings one can have. As a cis man in Massachusetts who is often assumed to be straight, it can be too easy for me to become complacent.

The panel was organized by the cleverly named Spectra which has been meeting for the better part of three decades. The 1995 JMM had been schedule to be in Denver, but in late 1992 Colorado passed a constitutional amendment that banned local anti-discrimination laws. The MAA and the AMS quickly moved to change the venue to San Francisco, so that the meeting would be something everyone could feel safe attending. Out of this a group of mathematicians (now Spectra) started organizing panels, on-site receptions, and off-site receptions at JMM meetings.

I always appreciate learning about histories like this, because I appreciate the work done by those who have come before, and because seeing how far we’ve come makes me feel a little bit better about how far I see we still need to go.

Asking around: what we’re up to at JMM

Colorado College students Hanbo Shao and Lyujiangyang Yu outside William Cook’s talk “Information, computation, and optimization: Connecting the dots on the Traveling Salesman Problem”. They enjoyed the talk: “It gave me a new angle on the traveling salesman problem; I didn’t know it could be solved with linear programming.” Next up, they were headed to Jill Pipher’s “Nonsmooth boundary problems” (this year’s Noether Lecture) or maybe to the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics reunion.

Michelle Manes and Aly Deines.  Michelle said “The Gibbs Lecture was the bomb.”  Aly concurred, adding that last night’s AWM reception was also amazing, and that William Cook’s traveling salesman lecture was really fun.  Next up, they were headed to the Noether lecture.

Heidi Goodson is enjoying interviews, great tacos (she recommends Salud!), and free coffee towards the back of the exhibit hall.

The view from the hallway, looking into Jo Boaler’s standing-room-only talk, “Changing mathematical relationships and mindsets: how all students can succeed in mathematics learning”. Reportedly, this talk was awesome.

Abe Mantell at the email center near registration on the ground floor of the San Diego Convention Center. Fresh from two simultaneous (!) committee meetings, Abe has also (?) been enjoying the view of Coronado Island and the MAA session on Math and Sports. He is also hoping to make it over to the MAA session on Math Circle Topics with Visual or Kinesthetic Components.

Guess the next term in this sequence? Dana Mackenzie is working hard in the press room, as Mike Breen looks on.  Dana is excited to see Judea Pearl (creator of Bayesian networks and the belief propagation algorithm) receive the 2018 Ulm Grenander prize.  Judea and Dana’s “The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect” comes out in May of 2018.

Carla Cotwright-Williams is excited “to use my math to help shape policy”.  She’s going home tomorrow to spend a week relaxing and getting ready to start her new position as a data scientist with the Department of Defense.

sarah-marie belcastro and Tom Hull are excited about SO many things at the JMM this year—sarah-marie has at compiled least 10 pages of activities for the meeting. They are both thrilled with the number of great panels and sessions devoted to inclusivity and equity in mathematics. “People are using almost new paradigms to think about this—new to me anyway, and I find it really exciting,“ Tom says.

Farhad Jafari and Greg Lyng are at the meeting interviewing job candidates and hosting a booth at the Grad School fair. “All prospective grad students should apply to the University of Wyoming,” Farhad says. Greg also especially enjoyed Edriss Titi’s address, “The Navier-Stokes, Euler, and related equations”

Mathematicians Teaching Intro Stats

Yesterday, I went to a panel about mathematicians teaching statistics. My department is a math/stats department so I have had the opportunity to TA many statistics classes, and I’ve really enjoyed it. The panelists all followed a similar trajectory of being forces to teach a statistics class, doing so as if it were a math class (heavily focused on definitions, equations, and procedures) and then over ten to twenty years reconstructing their class into something more focused on concepts, real world examples, and technology.

From left Charilaos Skiadas, Hanover College, Sue Schou, Idaho State University, Chris Oehrlein, Oklahoma City Community College, and Pati Frazer, St. Lawrence College

A lot of my students know how to follow the procedures of a hypothesis test quite well, but I can tell they don’t know really understand what a p-value is, and I wish I knew how to impart that understanding in the brief once-a-week discussion sections I have with them. The logic of hypothesis testing is more important, and more likely to stick with them than the details of each of the different models used in various hypothesis testing. If they do go on to use statistics in their work, they will likely be using technology, and it is the deep understanding of what a hypothesis test is that will ensure they use that technology appropriately. What I don’t think I fully appreciated before this panel was the extent to which a focus on procedures and equations can get in the way of learning statistical thinking.

The panelists have gathered a lot of useful information on this page, including links to real world data, curriculum recommendations from the MAA and ASA, and statistics teaching communities. I’ll be looking back to this the next time I get to TA (or teach!) an intro stats class.

Adriana and Hermione’s Time Turner

Every time I come to the Joint Math Meetings, I wish I had the time turner that Hermione uses in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There is too much interesting stuff all happening at the same time!  This time in particular was a first for me as far as Joint Math Meetings go: the two things I organized were scheduled at the same time!

AWM Panel on Being a Mathematician and an Activist. Left to right: Michelle Manes (moderator), Beth Malmskog, Federico Ardila, Piper Harron, Lily Khadjavi, and Karen Saxe.

First (or second?) I co-organized the AWM panel on Being a Mathematician and an Activist. Luckily, my co-organizer Michelle Manes had already volunteered to be the moderator (and she did an amazing job), so it didn’t matter that I ran in a few minutes late (because my simultaneous special session needed my laptop). I decided to go to the panel (2:15pm to 3:40pm), since I felt that Michelle might need more support. I tried to give the needed support, but I was spectacularly bad at figuring out when people had questions. The panel itself went really well (in my opinion). The panelists all had very insightful things to say, but I was struck by how many of them didn’t consider themselves to be “doing enough” to deserve the label “activist”. Another common thread was the need to fight for equity and justice, but also the sentiment that the goal should be that we no longer have to fight for any of this, and that racism, misogyny, and bigotry in general have no place in our society.

Stephan Ramon Garcia, from Pomona, gives a talk in the AMS special session on A Showcase of Number Theory at Liberal Arts Colleges.

Second (or first?) I co-organized the AMS Special Session on A Showcase in Number Theory at Liberal Arts Colleges (2:15pm to 6:05pm). Again, I was lucky to have a co-organizer, Lola Thompson, who took charge of the session while I was at the panel. Important lesson, when your computer is being used by all the presenters, and you’re not in the room, bad things can happen (like your computer going into sleep mode and no one knowing your password). It was not a disaster because the other presenters had a computer, but still. I missed two of the talks in the session, and arrived late at the next, but I’m glad I was able to see most of them. I’m really proud of this session, because it is a really fantastic group of high-quality researchers at small (and sometimes underestimated) institutions. Lola and I may be bringing this back next year (there were so many more people that we could have invited!), so stay tuned for that!

All in all, a pretty exhausting day, with traveling, double-booked organizing, and a panel that I’m hoping to write more about tomorrow. I was hoping to go to the AWM reception, but I’m barely awake enough to type (while lying in my hotel room bed). Hope you all had a time-turning-worthy day too!

What are you excited about at JMM 2018?

I asked a handful of participants (including myself) what they’re excited about at JMM 2018. The answers highlight how wonderfully eclectic this conference is.


Mathematics for the Masses

[Note: this is a post by Ben Thompson, 2017 AMS-AAAS Media Fellow.]

Talithia Williams shared some exclusive clips from her upcoming PBS series, NOVA Wonders, as part of her lecture this morning, “Mathematics for the Masses.” You can find now on YouTube a video featuring Talithia analyzing the feasibility of Santa’s Christmas Eve flight.

In the lecture, she told us she shared the video with her own children when they started doubting the reality of Santa. They decided to reject the null hypothesis (that parents are the true culprits) if presents were still under the tree at home despite the fact that they were away for Christmas. With a last-minute shopping trip made by some helpful neighbors before the Williams’ return, a Type I error was made! While her children still have more to learn about Santa, she was able to start teaching them about hypothesis testing.

After sharing other examples of sharing math with a wider audience, Talithia was joined by Ron Buckmire and James Alvarez on a panel focused on how to make math more accessible. As a department chair, Ron asked professors to identified students who might benefit from or enjoy taking more math classes even if they had never considered it before or weren’t at the top of the class. Over winter break he would mail those students a letter saying their professors enjoyed having them in class and he encouraged them to continue in the discipline. Many of those students came back the next semester for more math classes that they hadn’t been planning to take.

Talithia’s work with PBS came after her popular TED talk (though she reports half of the views on YouTube were from her mother) that introduced people to statistics by showing them how to collect and analyze their own health data.

This morning she suggested analyzing data from a school’s football team as an effective way to interest and engage students. NOVA Wonders will premiere in April. She also has a book coming out that month, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics.