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MAA Distinguished Lecture Series

The MAA sponsors a variety of public lectures, many of them held at the MAA Carriage House. Whether a Gathering 4 Gardner event or part of the NSA-funded Distinguished Lecture Series, the lectures feature some of the foremost experts within the field of mathematics, known for their ability to make current mathematical ideas accessible to non-specialists. The presentations provide a fabulous and fun learning opportunity for both professionals and students, as well as anyone interested in learning more about current trends in mathematics and the relationship between mathematics and broader scientific, engineering and technological endeavors.

Abstracts and speaker biographies will appear on this page as lectures are added to the events calendar.

Slidecasts and video clips of MAA public lectures are available here.

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William Dunham, Muhlenberg College
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Abstract: Almost fifty years ago, Cambridge University Press published the correspondence of Isaac Newton, a seven-volume, 3000-page collection of letters that provides insight into this great, if difficult, genius. In this talk, I share my favorite examples of Newton as correspondent. From his earliest known letter in 1661 (where he scolded a friend for being drunk), through exchanges with Leibniz, Locke, and others, to documents from his days at the Mint in London, these writings give glimpses of Newton at his best…and his worst. 

To add a bit of mathematics to the narrative, I stop to take a look at his first great mathematical discovery—the generalized binomial theorem as described in a 1676 letter to Leibniz—and show how “…the extraction of roots is much simplified by this theorem.” I’ll end with Newton’s most-quoted line about standing on the shoulders of giants and how my search for its place of origin led me, improbably, to a library in Philadelphia.

Biography: William Dunham has been the Truman Koehler Professor of Mathematics at Muhlenberg College since 1992. His books Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics (Wiley, 1990) and The Mathematical Universe (Wiley, 1994) were alternate selections for Book-of-the-Month Club, and the latter received the Association of American Publishers Award as the Best Mathematics Book of 1994. His next two books, Euler: The Master of Us All (MAA, 1999) and The Calculus Gallery: Masterpieces from Newton to Lebesgue (Princeton, 2005), were designated among their year’s Outstanding Academic Titles by Choice magazine of the American Library Association, and the Euler book received the MAA’s Beckenbach Prize in 2008. He has also edited a volume, The Genius of Euler: Selections from His Life and Work (MAA, 2007) and is featured in the Teaching Company’s DVD, “Great Thinkers, Great Theorems.”

Dunham’s interest in the history of mathematics has led to numerous talks at colleges and universities around the country and has carried him to speaking engagements at the Smithsonian Institution, on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday,” and at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, DC. In the fall of 2008 and again in the spring of 2013, he was a visiting professor at Harvard University, where he taught an undergraduate course on the mathematics of Leonhard Euler (course title: “Much Ado About Everything”). After stepping down from his Muhlenberg position in December of 2013, Dunham will be a visitor at Princeton University (spring, 2014) and then at the University of Pennsylvania (fall, 2014), and he hopes to continue as an itinerant math historian into the foreseeable future.

Read more about Dunham's lecture.


Steven J. Brams, New York University
Thursday, November 14, 2013

Abstract: While game theory finds frequent application in economics, political science, psychology, sociology, and evolutionary biology, mathematical calculations of strategic choice are seldom associated with the worlds of literature, history, philosophy, religion, or law.   

But game theory can illuminate wrenching choices, including those fueled by such emotions as anger, jealousy, or love. These will be illustrated by some of the following: Abraham's biblical decision to offer his son, Isaac, for sacrifice when God commanded him to do so; difficult and sometimes murderous choices of characters in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; and historical choices by the Supreme Court, presidents, and other leaders, especially in crises and wars. 

Biography: Steven J. Brams is Professor of Politics at New York University and the author, co-author, or co-editor of 18 books and more than 250 articles. His books include Theory of Moves (Cambridge, 1994) and, co-authored with Alan D. Taylor, Fair Division: From Cake-Cutting to Dispute Resolution (Cambridge, 1996) and The Win-Win Solution: Guaranteeing Fair Shares to Everybody (Norton, 1999). His newest books are Mathematics and Democracy: Designing Better Voting and Fair-Division Procedures (Princeton, 2008) and Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds (MIT, 2011). He holds two patents for fair-division algorithms and is chairman of the advisory board of Fair Outcomes, Inc.

Brams has applied game theory and social-choice theory to voting and elections, bargaining and fairness, international relations, and the Bible, theology, and literature. He is a former president of the Peace Science Society (1990-91) and of the Public Choice Society (2004-2006). He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1986), a Guggenheim Fellow (1986-87), and was a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation (1998-99). 

Read more about Brams's lecture.


Arthur Benjamin, Harvey Mudd College
Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Abstract: Art Benjamin is a mathematician and a magician. In this performance, he will demonstrate and explain how to mentally multiply numbers faster than a calculator, how to memorize pi to 100 places, how to calculate the day of the week of any date in history, and other amazing feats of mind. He has presented his mixture of math and magic to audiences all over the world.

"The Magic of Math and Mental Calculation," co-sponsored by Math for America-DC, is a Martin Gardner Celebration of Mind event. 

Biography: Arthur Benjamin earned his B.S. in Applied Mathematics from Carnegie Mellon and his Ph.D. in Mathematical Sciences from Johns Hopkins. Since 1989, he has taught at Harvey Mudd College, where he is Professor of Mathematics and past chair. In 2000, he received the Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching from the Mathematical Association of America, and served as the MAA's Pólya Lecturer from 2006 to 2008.

His research interests include combinatorics and number theory, with a special fondness for Fibonacci numbers. Many of these ideas appear in his book (co-authored with Jennifer Quinn), Proofs That Really Count: The Art of Combinatorial Proof, published by MAA. In 2006, that book received the MAA's Beckenbach Book Prize. Professors Benjamin and Quinn were the editors of Math Horizons magazine from 2004 through 2008. He is a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society. 

Dr. Benjamin has created four DVD courses for The Great Courses on The Joy of MathematicsDiscrete MathematicsThe Secrets of Mental Math, and The Mathematics of Games and Puzzles. He is a past winner of the American Backgammon Tour. 

He is also a magician who performs his mixture of math and magic to audiences all over the world, including the Magic Castle in Hollywood. He has demonstrated and explained his calculating talents in his book Secrets of Mental Math and on numerous television and radio programs, including The Today Show, CNN, and National Public Radio. He has been featured in Scientific AmericanOmniDiscoverPeopleEsquireNew York TimesLos Angeles Times, and Reader's Digest. In 2005, Reader's Digest called him "America's Best Math Whiz."

Read more about Benjamin's presentation.


Cathy O'Neil
Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Abstract: What is the big data revolution all about? How have things really changed from old-fashioned statistics? How have people and their tracked activity become part of the product? Cathy will explain the culture, the mathematics, and the technology of modern large-scale recommendation engines.

Biography: Cathy O'Neil majored in math at UC Berkeley, earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at the MIT math department, and was a professor at Barnard College where she published a number of research papers in arithmetic algebraic geometry. She then chucked it and switched over to the private sector. She worked as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis, and then for RiskMetrics, a risk software company that assesses risk for the holdings of hedge funds and banks. More recently she’s been working as a Senior Data Scientist at Johnson Research Labs in New York. She writes a blog at mathbabe.org and is involved with Occupy Wall Street.

Read more about O'Neil's lecture.


Robert Ghrist, University of Pennsylvania
Thursday, September 19, 2013

Abstract: Mathematics implicates motions and machines; computations and colorings; the strings and arrows of life. Perhaps the grandest expression of the beauty and power of mathematics is revealed in the quantification and qualification of that which is not there: holes. Topology—the mathematics of holes—will be surveyed with a fresh look at the many ways in which topology is used in data management, networks, and optimization.

Biography: After earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Toledo, Robert Ghrist went on to earn a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Cornell University, writing a thesis on knotted flowlines in 1995.

Robert Ghrist has held positions at the University of Texas, Austin; Georgia Institute of Technology; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is currently the Andrea Mitchell University Professor of Mathematics and Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ghrist's work focuses on topological methods in applied mathematics, with applications ranging from fluid dynamics to robotics to sensor networks and more. His work has been honored by an NSF PECASE award in 2004, a Scientific American "SciAm50 Top Research Innovation" award in 2007, and the Chauvenet Prize in 2013.

Read more about Ghrist's lecture.


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