Tag Archives: diversity

Solitons, Contours, and Thinking Sdrawkcab

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Meet Nalini Joshi, a mathematician at the University of Sydney in Australia. I’ll let her introduce herself to you.

Nalini has an amazing story and amazing passion. What does her video make you think? To hear more from Nalini, you can watch this talk she gave last month at the Women in Mathematics conference at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, England. Her talk is called “Mathematics and life: a personal journey.” You might also enjoy reading this interview or others on her media page.

Nalini Joshi lecturing about solitons.

Nalini Joshi lecturing about solitons.

I’d like to share three clumps of ideas that might give you a flavor for the math that Nalini enjoys doing. Most of it is way over my head, but I’m reaching for it! You can, too, if you try.

Here’s clump number one. Two of the main objects that Nalini studies are dynamical systems and differential equations. You can think of a dynamical system as some objects that interact with each other and evolve over time. Think of the stars that Nalini described in the video, heading toward each other and tugging on each other. Differential equations are one way of describing these interactions in a mathematically precise way. They capture how tiny changes in one amount affect tiny changes in another amount.

Vlasov billiards.

Vlasov billiards.

To play around with some simple dynamical systems that can still produce some complex behaviors, check out dynamical-systems.org. Vlasov billiards was new to me. I think it’s really cool. The three-body problem is one of the oldest and most famous dynamical systems, and you can tinker around with examples of it here and here. There’s even a three-body problem game you can try playing. I’m not too crazy about it, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. It certainly gives you a sense for how chaotic the a three-body system can be!

Nalini doesn’t study just any old dynamical systems. She’s particularly interested in ones where the chaotic parts of the system cancel each other out. Remember in the video how she described the stars that go past each other and don’t destroy each other, that are “transparent to each other”? Places where this happens in dynamical systems are called soliton solutions. They’re like steady waves that can pass through each other. Check out these four videos on solitons, each of which gives a different perspective on them. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could try reading this article called What is a Soliton?


Making a water wave soliton in the Netherlands.


A computer animation of interacting solitons.


Japanese artist Takashi Suzuki tests a soliton to be used in a piece of performance art.


Students studying and building solitons in South Africa.

Level curves that are generalized Cassini curves. Also, kind of looks like a four-body problem. (click for video)

Level curves that are generalized Cassini curves.
Also, it kind of looks like a four-body problem.
(click for video)

The second idea that Nalini uses that I’d like to share is level curves, or contours. Instead of studying complicated differential equations directly, it’s possible to get at them geometrically by studying families of curves—contours—that are produced by related algebraic equations. They’re just like the lines on a topographic map that mark off areas of equal elevation.

Here’s a blog post by our friend Tim Chartier about colorful contour lines that arise from the differential equation governing heat flow. The temperature maps by Zachary Forest Johnson from a few weeks ago also used contour lines. And I found some great pieces of art that take contours as their inspiration. Click to check these out!

level_curves Utopia-70 Visual_Topography_of_a_Generation_Gap_Brooklyn_2

The last idea clump I’ll share involves integrable systems. In an integrable system, it’s possible to uniquely “undo” what has happened—the rules are such that there’s only one possible past that could lead to the present. Most systems don’t work this way—you can’t tell what was in your refrigerator a week ago by looking at it now! Nalini mentions on her research page that “ideas on integrable differential equations also extend to difference equations, and even to extended versions of cellular automata.” I enjoyed reading this article about reversible cellular automata, especially the section about Critters.

What move did Black just play? A puzzle by Raymond Smullyan.

What move did Black just play?
A puzzle by Raymond Smullyan.

And this made me think of a really nifty kind of chess puzzle called retrograde analysis—a fancy way of saying “thinking backwards”. Instead of trying to find the best chess move to play next, you instead have to figure out what move was made to get to the position in the puzzle. Most chess positions could be arrived at through multiple moves, but the positions in these puzzles are specially designed so that only one move will work. There’s a huge index of this kind of problem at The Retrograde Analysis Corner, and there are some great starter problems on this page.

Maurice Ashley

Maurice Ashley

And perhaps you’d like to hear a little bit about thinking backwards from one of the greatest teachers of chess, Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. Check out his TED video here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out about Nalini Joshi and the mathematics that she loves. I asked Nalini if she would do a Q&A with us, and she said yes! Do you have a question you’d like to ask her? Send it to us below and we’ll include it in the interview, which I send to Nalini in about a week.

UPDATE: We’re no longer accepting questions for Nalini, because the interview has happened! Check it out!

Bon appetit!

Faces, Blackboards, and Dancing PhDs

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

What does a mathematician look like? What does a mathematician do? Here are a couple of things I ran across recently that give a window into what it’s like to be a professional research mathematician—someone who works on figuring out new math as their job.

Gary Davis, who blogs over at Republic of Mathematics, recently posted a short piece that challenges stereotypes about mathematicians. It’s called What does a mathematician look like?

Who here is a mathematician? Click through to find out!

Gary’s point is that you can’t tell who is or isn’t a mathematician just by looking at them. Mathematicians come from every background and heritage. Gary followed up on this idea in another post where he highlighted some notable mathematicians who are black women. Here’s a website called Black Women in Mathematics that shares some biographies and history. And here’s a link to the Infinite Possibilities Conference, a yearly gathering “designed to promote, educate, encourage and support minority women interested in mathematics and statistics.” Suzanne Weekes, one of the five mathematicians pictured above, was a speaker at this conference in 2010.

Richard Tapia, another of the mathematicians above, is featured in the following video. His life story both inspires and delights.

And what does this diversity of mathematicians do all day? Well, one thing they do is talk to each other about math! And though there are many new technologies that help people to do and share and collaborate on mathematics (like blogs!), it’s hard to beat a handy chalkboard as a scribble pad for sharing ideas.

At Blackboard of the Day, Mathieu Rémy and Sylvain Lumbroso share the results of these impromptu math jam sessions. Every day they post a photograph of a blackboard covered in doodles and calculations and sketches of ideas. The website is in French, but the mathematical pictures are a universal language.

Diana Davis, putting the finishing touches on a blackboard masterpiece

Sharing mathematical ideas can take many forms, and sometimes choosing the right medium can make all the difference. Mathematicians use pictures, words, symbols, sculptures, movies, songs—even dances! Let me point you to the “Dance your Ph.D.” Contest. It’s exactly what it sounds like—people sharing the ideas of their dissertations (their first big piece of original work) through dance. Entries come in from physicists, chemists, biologists, and more.  Below you’ll find an entry by Diana Davis, a mathematician who completed her dissertation at Brown University this past spring. Diana often studies regular polgyons and especially ways of “dissecting” them—breaking them up into pieces in interesting ways.

Thanks to The Aperiodical—a great math blog—for sharing Diana’s wonderful video!

Some pages from Diana’s notebooks

All kinds of mathematicians study math and share it in so many ways. It’s like a never-ending math buffet!

Bon appetit!

Pentomino Puzzles, Knight’s Tours, and Decimal Maxing

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Have a pentomino tiling problem that’s got you stumped?  Then perhaps the Pentominos Puzzle Solver will be right up your alley! Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about using computer programming and search algorithms to solve mathematical problems, and the Pentomino Puzzle Solver is a great example of the power of coding.  Written by David Eck, a professor of math and computer science at Brandeis University, the solver can find tilings of a variety of shapes.  Watch the application in slow-mo to see how it works; put it into high-gear to see the power of doing mathematics with computers!

Next, here’s a wonderful page about knight’s tours maintained by George Jelliss, a retiree from the UK.  He says on his introductory page, “I have been interested in questions related to the geometry of the knight’s move since the early 1970s.” George has investigated “leapers” or “generalized knights”—pieces that move in other L-shapes than the traditional 2×1—and he even published his own chess puzzle magazine for a number of years.  His webpage includes a great section about the history of knights tours, and I’m a fan of the beautiful catalog of “crosspatch” tours. Great stuff!

Multiplication, addition, division: which gives the biggest result?

Last but not “least”, to the left you’ll find a tiny chunk of a very large table that was constructed and colored by Debra Borkovitz, a math professor at Wheelock College.  Debra describes how, “Students often have poor number sense about multiplication and division with numbers less than one.”  She created an investigation where students decide, for any pair of decimals, which is biggest–multiplying them, adding them, or subtracting them.  For 1.0 and 1.0 the answer is easy–you should add them, so that you get 2.  .5 and 1 is trickier–adding yields 1.5, multiplying gives .5, but dividing 1 by .5 makes 2, since there are two halves in 1. Finding the biggest value possible given some restrictions is called “maximization” in mathematics, and it’s a very popular type of problem with many applications.

This investigation about makes me wonder: what other kinds of tables could I try to make?

Debra mentions that she got the inspiration for this problem from a newsletter put out by the Association of Women in Mathematics.  There’s lots to explore on their website, including an essay contest for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and undergraduates.

I hope you found something here to enjoy.  Bon appetit!