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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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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 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.

Susan Murphy, University of Michigan
Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Abstract: Imagine you are a child with ADHD. Wouldn't you like your doctors to periodically adapt your treatment to your unique—and ever-changing—condition? And wouldn't you be excited to learn that an algorithm used to analyze your medical data was originally developed for applications in robotics and artificial intelligence? This lecture will explain how a randomized clinical trial design (Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial or SMART) is being used to develop adaptive interventions—protocols that systematize sequential decision-making that is key to effective treatment of health problems. Examples include a study of children with ADHD.

Biography: Susan A. Murphy fills many roles at the University of Michigan. She is the H.E. Robbins Professor of Statistics, a professor of psychiatry, and research professor at the university's Institute for Social Research. Murphy is a Fellow of the of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the American Statistical Association, and was elected a member of the International Statistical Institute. She is a former editor of the Annals of Statistics. Her primary research interest concerns how best to collect and employ data to inform the development of personalized and individualized sequences of treatments to help people treat and manage chronic health problems.

Read more about Murphy's lecture.