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Mathematicians converge on Baltimore to discuss the science and art of numbers

What's 6,000 mathematicians, multiplied by 2,500 talks, divided over four days?

The nation's largest gathering devoted to the science — and art — of math.

The annual Joint Mathematics Meetings is gathering in Baltimore this week for the first time in a decade. Running through Saturday at the Baltimore Convention Center, it is organized by the country's two major professional groups for mathematicians and includes smaller meetings of other mathematical societies. Attendees come from as far as Korea, Brazil and Iran.

Mathematicians, some bearded and bespectacled, others young and flaunting tattoos of equations, are filling the Inner Harbor with chatter about irreducible polynomials, combinatorics, differential equations and other topics that bring back bad memories of high school for many of us.

"There are so many specialized fields" that even mathematicians find themselves overwhelmed at the conference, said Christie Burris, a 19-year-old sophomore math major at Colorado State University. "It's over everybody's head."

Burris has the pi symbol tattooed behind her ear. She and her classmates gave a presentation on an algorithm they designed to win a video game, attended a session on the mathematics of knitting, and browsed sculptures inspired by geometry and string theory.

Math "is a lot different than people think," said Burris, standing near a swirl-shaped red sculpture. "I haven't thought about calculus for years."

Nearby, Reza Sarhangi, a mathematics professor at Towson University, was guiding fellow mathematicians through a math-inspired exhibit. He said math has more in common with art than most people think.

"People confuse mathematics with numbers," he said. "People think if you're a mathematician, you should be able to calculate the restaurant bill really fast. But many mathematicians are bad at that."

Rather, he said, mathematicians are fascinated by patterns, much as artists and musicians are.

Sarhangi founded an international conference on the intersection of math and art and organized the art exhibit at this week's convention.

The artworks include a gleaming wooden sphere known by the tongue-tripping name rhombicosidodecahedron. It's formed by 12 pentagons, 20 triangles and 30 squares, cut with minute precision and carefully pieced together, said the sculpture's creator, Hamp Stevens.

Stevens, a retired commodities trader from St. Simons Island, Ga., said he is not a mathematician but became fascinated by the shape after seeing it in a book. He has sculpted the shape from strips of metal, fastened together at precise angles, as well as from polished wood.

Other artworks include sculptures made from book pages folded according to calculus equations, a mathematical contemplation on cornrow braids and a "wormhole" twisted from two pieces of string.

On the other side of the exhibition space, workers were putting the final touches on a massive polyhedron — a multisided three-dimensional shape — designed by James Sawyer of Buffalo, N.Y.

Sawyer, who says he studied with architect Buckminster Fuller, says the shape could be used to construct houses that could withstand strong winds and rains.

The many surfaces make the building "much stronger than your typical housing structure," he said.

Darci Kracht, a professor at Kent State University, said the convention allows participants to learn about new discoveries in mathematics as well as practical applications.

Kracht said she was gathering ideas for how to teach math to liberal arts majors as well as activities for her university's math club, of which she is the moderator. She had attended a lecture on math and sculpture and was planning to head to a mathematics of dance workshop.

For those interested in the more arcane applications of mathematics, there were myriad sessions with names that meant little to laypeople, such as "Compressibility of Countable Subsets of Cantor Space" or "Efficient spectral-element methods for acoustic scattering and related problems."

Vendors sold T-shirts emblazoned with math puns such as "Sweetie (pi)" and "logarithm and blues." Booksellers offered titles that seemed as if they could apply to philosophy and poetry as easily as math: "Handbook of Infinite Fields," "Divided Spheres," "Discrete Chaos."

Standing near the books, number theory expert, author and professor Kenneth H. Rosen greeted Harold Stark, his thesis adviser from 1976, and former classmates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rosen and his former classmate, Jerrold Grossman, an Oakland University professor, laughed over the recollection of the time the convention was held in Las Vegas. The casino owners were peeved, they said, because most mathematicians refused to gamble, and those who did won.

"We get to see old friends," said Rosen, who has been coming to these conventions since 1975. "And that is a good reason to come."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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