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Joint Math Meetings Wrap-Up

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I wrote a few blog posts while I was at the Joint Mathematics Meetings back in January, but now you can read some more comprehensive coverage of the meetings at the American Mathematical Society website.

Getting my blog on in the press room at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in January. Photo: American Mathematical Society.

In addition to AMS staff members, there were three of us former AAAS-AMS Mass Media Fellows in the press room, writing for the JMM blog and the highlights pages.

My contributions to the coverage included:

-Emily Shuckburgh’s address on using mathematics to study climate change. The talk was both awe-inspiring—the mathematical models that describe and predict global wind patterns are so cool—and sobering—I saw some graphs that illustrated in stark terms the gravity of climate change.

-An Association for Women in Mathematics panel on hiring and retaining women faculty members, a subject near and dear to my heart. Pro tip: don’t call a conversation between three female mathematicians a “Girl Scout meeting.”

-The most interesting, entertaining talk about statistical mechanics I’ve ever been to, by Fields Medalist and all-around delightful speaker Cedric Villani. Fundamentally, the lecture (and statistical mechanics) is about the sometimes mysterious concept of entropy. Villani quoted John von Neumann’s comments to information theorist Claude Shannon about the use of the term: “You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.” If you’re not laughing as hard as a room full of mathematicians at 9 pm on the first day of the joint meetings, well, maybe you just had to be there.

-A session of short talks on writing, talking, and sharing mathematics, which included presentations by established math writers Dana Mackenzie and Barry Cipra among others. The gem of the session may have been Cipra’s re-imagining of the opening of Moby Dick, as written by a mathematician. ”Let my name be Ishmael, let the captain’s name be Ahab, let the boat’s name be Pequod, and let the whale’s name be as in the title.” If you’re not laughing as hard as a room full of mathematicians at 8 am on the last day of the joint meetings, well, see above.

-Ken Golden’s public lecture on mathematics and sea ice. Golden travels to Antarctica to study sea ice and answered the burning question posed by a Salt Lake City reporter: why do they need mathematicians in Antarctica? Like Shuckburgh, Golden included some sobering information about the reality of man-made climate change, but the cute video footage of penguins at the end lessened the blow somewhat.

My colleagues in the press room covered the mathematical art exhibit, sessions on the hot-button issue of open-access publishing, Keith Devlin’s lecture on Fibonacci’s arithmetic textbooks that revolutionized commerce in Europe, and retiring Mathematical Association of America president Paul Zorn’s address on communicating mathematics, in which he recommended that expository writing (for example, a math blog on the Scientific American blog network?) should be recognized and rewarded using the “academic currency” of tenure and promotion. Just a thought, future employers!

So hop on over and read about what you missed, whether you were at the meetings or not. But if you don’t have time for all that, perhaps the most succinct description of a day at the joint meetings is Adriana Salerno’s blog post “Blurry photos of smart people.”

Evelyn Lamb About the Author: Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter @evelynjlamb.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. stargene 3:02 am 02/18/2013

    Since my own grasp of the concept of entropy
    may charitably be called australopithicine,
    it fills me with joyful “oook!” to learn that
    even von Neumann had a hard time wrapping
    his fine mind around it.

    Link to this

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