Greetings from the Willamette Mathematics Consortium

Today marks the first day of the WMC REU. I never went to a formal REU as an undergraduate, so I’m a first-timer just like many of the students. My first task today finding a suitable coffee shop for my summer caffeinated home base. (I settled on The Governor’s Cup, which sports an exposed brick wall, generously-sized table tops, and coffee that’s roasted in-house).

Although I’d corresponded with my three research students via email, it was a treat to meet them in person. All nine of the students seem like good people, in fact, and so do the other research mentors. It’s rare to find a group where there isn’t a single unlikeable person (which leads me to wonder if, in reality, I’m the unlikable one? Nah…).

Besides having found a coffee shop that will inevitably see many hours of work on my part, I have an office in the mathematics “hearth” at Willamette. I haven’t had much experience visiting places for long enough to have an office; I find myself distracted by trying to calculate the number of math books I have in common with the usual owner. In my professional opinion, it’s a big number. We also have several climbing guides in common. What is it about math and climbers? (One of the REU students is a climber, too.)

In my first meeting with my group, we talked about the basics — scheduling, their goals for the summer, my goals for the summer, project possibilities, and, of course, homework. Since the homework required starting to read research papers, we talked about how to do that.

They had plenty to do for the day, so we broke and I spent the afternoon working on revising a paper that I’m writing with my graduate advisors. If I can get the paper out of my hands by next week, I’ll be a jubilant mathematician. After a productive session, I outlined some of my other summer goals. I’ve got other research work to do, and some general administrative professor “stuff” that I have been, well, lazy about getting done. While I feel well-prepared for my role as an REU mentor, I would like to wrangle some resources together in case they’re helpful.

It’s been a fun day!

Outrage Over Government’s Animal Experiments Leads To USDA Review

Some of the outrageous experiments in here seem even more offensive if you believe (as I do) that we have enough information to make a fairly good predictive model for some of these “empiric” questions. I find it morally objectionable that the government didn’t hire someone to sit down and do some math before condemning all these animals to horrific deaths. The question of whether or not we need to know should be considered, sure, but also the question of how to go about knowing, and if an answer derived on paper is good enough if it spares lives (and, no doubt, taxpayer dollars).

Legend had it that, during the invasion, Archimedes was so engrossed in the study of a geometric figure in the sand that he failed to respond to the questioning of a Roman soldier. As a result, he was speared to death.

After reading this, Sophie Germain concluded that if somebody could be so consumed by a geometric problem that it could lead to their death, then mathematics must be the most captivating subject in the world.

Golden mutation…?

The argument I’ve always heard for why leaves or branches grow by rotating around a stem/trunk one golden angle at a time is that this is an optimal mutation. I’ve even heard this as an explanation for why clovers typically have three leaves. I’m not sure I understand how the thinking applies, since it seems to be about getting the most sunlight without completely overshadowing earlier growth, and this clearly isn’t a factor for a single clover. I haven’t sat down with a collection of clovers and a protractor, either. So I’m basically saying I’m riddled with doubts here.

Anyway, nevertheless, I wonder about the Fibonacci/golden angle/n-leaf-ness aspect of four leaf clovers often. If we planted a patch of 4 leaf clovers, would a 3 leaf mutation really be optimal “enough” to eventually win out? This is an empirical question, so I hope someone will take the charge and design a long-term controlled study!

What the wha? Bernoulli’s theorem, applied. 1

Today, as part of the AGAM camp, the girls had a mini course on aerodynamics. And then we flew in tiny airplanes.


I wish I could say that this post was going to contain some math, but really, I’m just going to post pictures.


I got to steer the plane, to everyone’s dismay.


But despite my lack off subtlety and grace, no high schoolers were harmed this evening. And now, I think I’ll look into flight schools!

All Girls/All Math

All Girls/All Math 2014

All Girls/All Math 2014

This week, I’m teaching one of the parallel “Codes and Cryptography” classes at the All Girls/All Math camp at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It’s so much fun to be in a room full of budding mathematicians from all over the country, and it reminds me of what it felt like to love the idea of math before getting too deep into any particular specialization.

I’ve made a few resources for the class, which I’ll drop in this post as the week continues.

Obviously, the rock climbing links come first…:
Bouldering vs. Top-Roping (vs. Lead-Climbing)
Rock climbing and teaching math

And here are some relevant math links:

The Bletchley Circle on PBS:

A quick review of the symmetric cryptography systems we talked about on Day 1:

Here’s an article about a new kind of space race — the race to bounce perfectly secret codes off low-orbit satellites using quantum cryptography:

For encrypting and decrypting messages, you can play with the web apps at

And after the jump, there’s an except lifted from a blog post by Cathy O’Neil at


Undercover at an Algebraic Combinatorics Conference

Before I went to graduate school and became a commutative algebraist, I did a little work in graph theory. It was fun! I proved theorems! My mentor/coauthor Josh Laison provided a wonderful introduction to the fun inherent in doing research.

Well, roughly a decade later, I found myself at an Algebraic Combinatorics conference in honor of Chris Godsil’s 65th birthday (whose book with Royle was my introduction to Algebraic Graph Theory almost *exactly* 10 years ago). It’s exciting to see that some of the work we did is still relevant.


It’s also a lovely drive to get to U. Waterloo from Hamilton College. In fact, on the way home, I spent a night camping on Nairne Island at the Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary. It was the maiden voyage for my new solo tent, and I had plenty of math to think about in the peace and quiet!