...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Francis Su... A Mathematician For All Seasons

Math-Frolic Interview #41

"What I hope to convince you of today is that the practice of mathematics cultivates virtues that help people flourish.  These virtues serve you well no matter what profession you choose.  And the movement towards virtue happens through basic human desires.
"I want to talk about five desires we all have.... 1) Play... 2) Beauty... 3) Truth... 4) Justice... 5) Love... "

                                   -- Francis Su (farewell address to the MAA)

When I do interviews here it usually takes me awhile to choose a title for the interview... for some reason, with Dr. Francis Su "A Mathematician For All Seasons" almost immediately jumped to mind as just seeming to fit. I hope all those who know Dr. Su personally, or experienced his farewell address at the 2017 joint math meetings, agree! 
Dr. Su is an award-winning professor at Harvey Mudd College, one of the Claremont Colleges (my old stomping grounds) in Southern California, and recent past President of the MAA.
His well-received farewell address is here:

His homepage is here:

...and he tweets at: @mathyawp

I'll let him tell you more about himself via the questions:


1)  Your wonderful MAA retirement address (“Mathematics is for human flourishing”) to the Joint Meetings in Atlanta in January was one of the most linked-to math tweets I’ve seen since I’ve been on Twitter. Can you tell us briefly how that talk evolved for you. Was it a long or quick process, and did you know well ahead of time what you wanted to impart?

Since being elected as MAA President, I knew I'd have to give this speech. I also knew if I chose to give a standard math talk, I'd have regretted missing an opportunity to speak about important issues facing our community.  Given the racial turmoil facing our country, the lack of diversity within our profession, and my unique position of being the first MAA or AMS president of color, I knew I wanted to address the theme of inclusion. And that the best way to do that would be to first paint an inclusive vision of why we do mathematics, and connect that to deep human themes. So I had the threads of the talk almost a year before, but I didn't start writing in earnest until December. I was nervous and kept rewriting my talk. But if I had started any earlier I would have just kept second guessing myself even more!

2)  Within math circles we often see “mathematics” associated with “beauty” or “science” or even “wonder,” but connecting it to “human flourishing” was somewhat novel on your part. Was the word “flourishing” a sort of epiphany for you, or is it a term you’d long linked to math?

I'm a fan of philosophy and theology, and the term 'human flourishing' is actually popular in philosophical and theological circles as describing the well-lived life. But connecting it to math happened when I was discussing my ideas for the talk with a good friend.  So I suppose you could call it an epiphany.

3) As I ask most interviewees, do you recall what first attracted you to mathematics, and when did you know you wished to pursue it professionally?

I discovered by love for math as a kid.  My parents gave me math books to read and I enjoyed working on puzzles.  I began to get a glimpse of real math when my dad gave me a book on Fermat's Last Theorem.  That book had a proof that every Pythagorean triple is of the form (p^2-q^2, 2pq, p^2+q^2) for integers p, q.  And I thought that proof was beautiful!

4)  Tell us a little about your own specialty interests within the field of mathematics…

These days I study geometric and topological combinatorics. You can think of that as combinatorial problems where geometry or topology play a prominent role. So, for instance, the study of triangulations of polyhedra. A question I've worked on is: what is the minimal number of n-dimensional tetrahedra you need to build an n-dimensional cube? A unique niche I've carved for myself is applying mathematical methods from this area to answer questions in the social sciences.

5) If you were dropped on to a desert island with at most 3-4 math-related books to occupy your time (and mind), what would they be and why? And how about non-math books?

Yikes. I'm not a fan of re-reading books so the books I'd most want to have are probably ones I've not read yet!  So maybe I'd ask good friends to choose for me. If I can't do that, I suppose the math books I'd take are: (1) a book of solved problems, e.g. puzzles or a set of inquiry-based notes in some subject I wanted to learn, (2) a book of unsolved problems and (3) math historian Glen Van Brummelen's The Mathematics of the Heavens and the Earth: The Early History of Trigonometry.  That last book might be handy while stargazing on a desert island.  Non-math related books I'd take are (1) the Bible (for personal devotional reading), (2) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (a favorite book), and (3) a book about survival skills or ship-building. :-)

6)  If you could pick one deceased mathematician (who you never knew) to sit down and have coffee with and discuss mathematics, who might it be and why?

Blaise Pascal, for sure. I'd love to discuss both mathematics and theology with him.  

7)  Given the ongoing harsh arguments about how secondary math education ought proceed in the U.S., how confident are you that it is headed in the best (or at least, a good) direction?
Also (optional), do you care to express any concerns about math/science education, more generally, going forward under a Trump Administration?

I think secondary math education is generally headed in a good direction. For instance, the Common Core is a good set of standards and most states have some version, even if (due to political posturing) they rejected the title Common Core.  More needs to be done by all of us to support our teachers, to ensure that curricula (which aren't part of the standards) are written well, and to discourage schools from going overboard with testing (a separate issue from the standards). 

It remains to be seen what happens to math/science education under a Trump Administration, but I do think we need to help our students see that facts matter, that telling truths matter, and that their math education really can help them to think critically about the claims they encounter and to be people of intellectual integrity. 

8)  When you’re not doing math, what are some main interests/hobbies/activities you enjoy?

I enjoy photography and gardening. For similar reasons as why I love math: there's beauty in the interplay between structure and freedom, and there's playfulness and artistry in the choices I make.


Thanks Dr. Su for participating here, and more importantly for your years of service/devotion to the math community. And may structure, freedom, playfulness, and artistry be a part of all our lives as you so encourage!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Math Potpourri

1)  Another interesting (I think) post from Andrew Gelman, this time on medicine and science:

2)  And another ‘math is beautiful’ article:

3)  A-a-a-nd another tribute to Hans Rosling (via Nautilus):

4) Upcoming courses (MOOCs) from Jo Boaler:

5)  Siobhan Roberts interviews mathematician Sylvia Serfaty for Quanta:

6)  Evelyn Lamb celebrates another holiday:

7)  “Fighting gerrymandering with geometry”… enough said:
8)  Reminder that there's always more weekly math at Mike’sMathPage:

…and Sunday morning come right back to MathTango for interview #41 in that series.

Potpourri BONUS! (extra NON-mathematical links of interest): 

A hummingbird feeding its young... that is all:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Another Weekly Mix

1)  Already old news, but two giants passed away over a week ago:
Hans Rosling obituaries:

…and for Raymond Smullyan, the NY Times here:

…and “Gödel’s Lost Letter…” memorialized him here:

2)  Penrose tiling and Lior Pachter’s bathroom:

3)  Review here of “A Brief History of Mathematical Thought”:

4)  Mark Chu-Carroll on the “well-ordering theorem” and Cantor diagonalization:

5)  The math behind the bizarre disappearance of Malaysian airline MH370:

6)  Latest from Numberphile:

7)  Cathy O’Neil’s latest on big data, algorithms, alternative facts, reliability etc…:

8)  "The Mathematics of Quantum Computers" from the PBS Infinite series:

9)  Twin primes and the number 8 (from Chalkdust Magazine):

10)  This week's "On Being" episode has Krista Tippett replaying her interesting 2015 interview with physicist Margaret Wertheim:

11)  And hot off the presses, Jim Propp's newest piece, this month on one of math's favorites, pi (in honor of Pi-Day next month):

Potpourri BONUS! (extra NON-mathematical links of interest): 

I really got nothing for ya in the way of bonuses this week, so I'll just throw in this old classic funny dog video (...'cuz who doesn't like funny animals, and if I don't laugh I'm gonna cry):

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Week That Was...

1)  One of several posts where Andrew Gelman mulls over the research of a business school professor:

2)  RSA-129 from Numberphile:

3)  RJ Lipton reports on an impressive 5-man panel discussion (including one fool ;) of P vs. NP:

4)  If you’re not too tired of hearing problems with p-values, well here’s a litany:

5)  A John Baez update on science data amidst the world of Trumpian obfuscation:

6)  Futility Closet aired the story of Ramanujan on their podcast this week:

7)  The map of mathematics via YouTube:

8)  Mircea Pitici’s “The Best Writing On Mathematics 2016” is now available:

The “Introduction” here:  http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i10953.pdf

9)  The foundations of symplectic geometry from Quanta:
11)  At Math-Frolic this week I briefly looked at a physics book and yesterday reported the news of Raymond Smullyan’s death.

Potpourri BONUS! (extra NON-mathematical links of interest): 

1)  The fellow behind the @TrumpDraws Twitter viral account:

2)  And ICYMI, John Cleese’s letter to the U.S. (though I think perhaps he’s overreached his power a wee bit):

I'll depart on a more divine note from Raymond Smullyan:

Friday, February 3, 2017

Mathy Things From the Week

For your reading weekend:

1)  Looking for distraction, Brian Hayes took on a James Tanton problem here:

2)  Latest video from Grant Sanderson on fractals:

3)  A review of Daniel Levitan’s book, “A Field Guide to Lies,” which I highly recommended awhile back:

4)  Latest “Math Teachers At Play” blog carnival here, with plenty of links:

5)  As if I hadn’t been seeing enough evil this week, Ben Orlin chimed in with ‘evil mathematicians’… and, cracked me up:

(p.s... I think Ben should join up with whoever does the @TrumpDraws account -- would be the greatest cartoon collaboration in world history, BELIEVE ME ;)

6)  Joselle crosses various boundaries (math, biology, physics, information theory), as she often does, in a new post, “Life in the Inanimate”:

You may also want to check out Philip Ball’s first piece for Quanta on life’s complexity:

7)  I’ve covered it a bit previously, but another good piece on the Libratus poker-playing program that just walloped human pros:

8)  New President announced for MAA:

9)  A shame we even need to be thinking about such things, but we do, and Evelyn Lamb presents “A Math Lesson From Hitler’s Germany”:

...I'll also reiterate from earlier in week ICYMI, Dr. Lamb is offering a new email newsletter you can subscribe to by going here:

10)  The latest (Jan.) “Journal of Humanistic Mathematics” online here:

11)  Timing is everything... I was hoping to have an interview up with Francis Su in a few weeks, and now Quanta has beat me to the punch with this wonderful offering:

12)  Another editorial on why mathematical reasoning is a skill worth striving for (h/t Anthony Bonato):

13)  In a largely humor-challenged week, I'll toss in this bit of humor from a tweet and its comments:

14)  Keep up with news of the April 22 "March For Science" here:

Potpourri BONUS! (extra NON-mathematical links of interest): 

1)  This week’s This American Life episode was another re-run of a classic, fun show, this time on ‘coincidences’:

2)  There is a nationwide coffeehouse fundraiser for the ACLU this weekend. Check for participants in your area:
And an online petition calling for the impeachment of Emperor Trump: