Student samples math world’s pi and doughnuts

“I think you should give a talk at a math conference,” my thesis advisor, Frank Morgan, professor of mathematics, announced as I strode into his office for our bi-weekly meeting.

“About what?”

“Your thesis.” I rapidly tried to recall what exactly my thesis was about. We’d spent our recent meeting blowing soap bubbles, while talking about how to make a two-holed doughnut from two pairs of pants. Having committed myself to writing a thesis, I now had less than eight months to prove mathematics that humankind had never laid eyes on. Yet three weeks into my first attempt at math research, I still had no idea what I was doing.

“Sounds great!” I replied. “Sign me up. Oh, and about my thesis, what’s that on again?”

And so, two months later, I found myself standing in front of a whiteboard before 20 professional mathematicians from all over New England, each of whom (I assumed) had known algebraic topology from the age of six and could sum up everything I’d learned at Williams in a single equation. As I frantically scrawled drawings and theorems on the board, explaining what the heck I’d been doing 12 hours a week for the past two months, I prayed no one would jump up and shout “That’s trivial!” or “I proved that result last year.” The most surreal moment came when, in an attempt to play the part of a college math teacher, I posed a question to my “class.” Despite their abnormal intelligence, none of my 30- to 70-year-old “students” were willing to answer. When I finished, there was some polite applause, a couple questions I miraculously answered, and then everyone got up and left. My first ever math talk was over, but my first foray into the world of academia, had just begun.

As we checked into our motel that evening, mathematics professor Tom Garrity turned to the casually-dressed stranger standing next to us. “Are you a mathematician?” he asked. “Why yes I am,” the man replied, as if he got that question walking down the street every day. Later, I asked Garrity how he knew. “I know it when I see it,” he said. “A bit absent-minded, somewhat disheveled. You can see it in their hair and way they dress. I once had a promising young student who looked perfectly normal, but by the time she was done with grad school, she had the look.”

The real point of math conferences, I was told, is not only the lectures, but also the networking, and my advisor insisted I come away with a list of contacts. Starting conversations with professors you’ve never met whose fields of math you don’t understand, however, is about as difficult as it sounds. As I strolled from one lecture to another, I tried to think of ways to start a conversation, but all that came to mind was, “So . . . I hear you’re into math . . . That’s cool . . . do you have a favorite function or something?”

To my surprise, however, most of the professors weren’t talking about complex analysis or hyperbolic manifolds; many weren’t even talking about math. In the back of the auditorium, several professors were huddled together trying to name the most the most unsavory characters in the history of math: Nazis, serial killers, ax murderers and the like. In the cafeteria, I joined two female professors discussing the difficulties of planning a sabbatical year at another college while raising kids. Like a little boy who is shocked to see his first-grade teacher in the supermarket, I slowly dawned on me that mathematicians actually do live in the real world (even if the shapes they study don’t).

Each lecture concluded with a mysterious raffle, which seemed to involve an infinite supply of stress balls and math books. After calling out the names of roughly half the 200+ attendees, the mathematician MC told all the students in the audience to try to guess what number he was thinking of. “Oh no,” I thought. “This is almost as hard as playing poker with a statistician. What if the number is imaginary or p-adic? How will we even figure out whose guess is closest?” I tried to think of what numbers my own math professors thought were cool. Clearly plain old counting numbers were out. Then I thought of the famous pi-e debate held between Garrity and mathematics professor Colin Adams. Pi or e, pi or e, which one sounded more trendy? The student in front of me raised his hand. “e!” he shouted. The MC shook his head. “Pi!” I screamed, knowing there was no chance it could be that obvious. “That’s it!” the MC cried, and promptly scampered over to present me with my very own squishy yellow stress ball and a book entitled The Edge of the Universe.

As we cruised back across the state that night, my mind racing in mathematical overdrive, I realized that I not only had given a talk at a math conference, but I now had an honorarium to show for it. Not bad for a kid who once thought he would major in history or political science, figuring that only a child prodigy could understand college math. If only I’d known they’d pay me to talk about my pants . . . or to blow soap bubbles.