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Past MAA Distinguished Lectures

Erica Flapan, Pomona College
Monday, September 22, 2014

Abstract: In this lecture I will give examples of mirror image symmetry in life in general and chemistry in particular. I explain why it is important to determine whether a molecule has mirror image symmetry, and discuss the differences between a geometric, chemical, and topological approach to understanding mirror image symmetry. I present various examples of molecules that are symmetric or asymmetric from different viewpoints including some of my own results about topologically asymmetric molecules. No background is necessary to understand the lecture.

Biography: Erica Flapan received her B.A. from Hamilton College in 1977 and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1983. She was a post-doc for two years at Rice University and for one year at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She joined the faculty at Pomona College in 1986. Since 2006, she has been the Lingurn H. Burkhead Professor of Mathematics at Pomona College. In addition to teaching at Pomona College, Flapan has been teaching regularly at the Summer Mathematics Program for Women Undergraduates at Carleton College. In 2010, Flapan won the Distinguished Teaching Award from the Southern California and Nevada Section of the MAA. Then, in 2011, Flapan won the MAA’s Haimo Award for distinguished college or university teaching of mathematics.  She was selected as an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society.

Erica Flapan’s research is in the areas of knot theory, spatial graph theory, and 3-manifolds. She is one of the pioneers of the study of the topology of graphs embedded in 3-dimensional space, and has published extensively in this area and its applications to chemistry and molecular biology. In addition to her research papers, she has published an article in the College Mathematics Journal titled “How to be a good teacher is an undecidable problem,” as well as three books. Her first book, When Topology Meets Chemistry, was published jointly by the MAA and Cambridge University Press. Her second book, Applications of Knot Theory, is a collection of articles that Flapan co-edited with Professor Dorothy Buck of Imperial College London. Most recently, Flapan co-authored an elementary textbook called Number Theory: A Lively Introduction with Proofs, Applications, and Stories with James Pommersheim and Tim Marks, published by John Wiley and Sons. She is currently at work on a new book that will be titled Knots, Molecules, and the Universe: An Introduction to Topology.

Read more about Flapan's lecture.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Speakers: Mary Gray (American University), James Donaldson (Howard University), and Linda Braddy (MAA)

Lee Lorch, who died earlier this year at the age of 98, was a mathematician and a civil rights activist. He taught at City College in New York and a number of historically African-American colleges and universities, and was fired from several of these because of his activism. He spent most of his career at York University in Toronto.

Our speakers will survey Lorch's contributions, the progress that has been made, and what still needs to be done.

A reception will follow this event.

Learn more about Lorch's contributions.

Organized by Joe Auslander, Professor of Mathematics (emeritus) University of Maryland, and Michael Pearson, MAA Executive Director

Jordan Ellenberg, University of Wisconsin
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Abstract: For five years, a group of MIT students exploited a loophole in the Massachusetts State Lottery to win game after game, eventually pocketing more than $3 million. I'll talk about how they did it, why they got away with it, the mathematical notions of expected value and variance, and the surprising relationship of all this with projective geometry.

Biography: Jordan Ellenberg earned his Ph.D. in math from Harvard in 1998 and is now Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of How Not To Be Wrong, a book about the ubiquity of mathematical thinking in everyday life, forthcoming from the Penguin Press in June 2014. His research specialties are number theory and algebraic geometry; he has held an NSF-CAREER award and was one of the plenary speakers at the 2013 AMS/MAA Joint Meetings. His writing on mathematical topics appears regularly in Slate, and he has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Wired. He blogs at Quomodocumque and tweets at @JSEllenberg. (Photo credit Mats Rudels.)

Read more about Ellenberg's lecture.

Alissa S. Crans, Loyola Marymount University
Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Abstract: Many of us are familiar with famous sequences of numbers such as the odd numbers 1, 3, 5, 7,...; perfect squares 1, 4, 9, 16, 25,...; Fibonacci sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8,...; or the triangular numbers 1, 3, 6, 10, 15,... But what about the sequence 1, 1, 2, 5, 14,...? First described by Euler in the 1700s and made famous by Belgian mathematician Eugène Catalan 100 years later, these "Catalan numbers" take on a variety of different guises as they provide the solution to numerous problems throughout mathematics.

Biography: Alissa S. Crans earned her B.S. in mathematics from the University of Redlands in 1999 and her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California at Riverside in 2004 under the guidance of John Baez. She is currently an Associate Professor of mathematics at Loyola Marymount University and has held positions at Pomona College, The Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago.

Alissa's research interests lie in the field of higher-dimensional algebra and some of her recent work, funded by an NSA Young Investigator Grant, involves categorifying algebraic structures called quandles with the goal of defining new knot and knotted surface invariants. She is also interested in the connections between mathematics and music, and enjoys playing the clarinet with the Santa Monica College wind ensemble.

Alissa has extensive experience mentoring and supporting women mathematicians through her involvement in the Summer Mathematics Program (SMP) at Carleton College and teaching in the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) program and the Summer Program for Women in Mathematics (SPWM) at George Washington University. She is also a co-organizer the Southern California Women in Mathematics Symposium, the Graduate Education Mentoring (GEM) Workshop, and the Career Mentoring Workshop (CaMeW), and is currently serving as a Member-at-Large on the Executive Committee of the Association for Women in Mathematics. Alissa is also extremely active in helping students increase their appreciation and enthusiasm for mathematics through co-organizing the Pacific Coast Undergraduate Mathematics Conference, funded by the NSF, NSA, and MAA, now in its ninth year.

Alissa is a recipient of the Mathematical Association of America's 2011 Merten M. Hasse Prize for expository writing and 2011 Henry L. Alder Award for distinguished teaching by a beginning college/university mathematics faculty member. In addition, Alissa was an invited speaker at the Museum of Mathematics, the MAA Sectional Meetings of the So Cal/Nevada, EPaDel, and DC-MD-VA Sections, and the keynote speaker at the University of Oklahoma Math Day, the UCSD Undergraduate Math Day, the Expanding Your Horizons Conference at James Madison University, and the Sonya Kovalevskey Mathematics Day at Cal State University, Fresno.

Read more about Crans's lecture.

Francis Edward Su, Harvey Mudd College
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Abstract: When does a majority exist? How does the geometry of the political spectrum influence the outcome? What does mathematics have to say about how people behave? When mathematical objects have a social interpretation, the associated results have social applications. We will show how math can be used to model people's preferences and how classical results about convex sets can be used in the analysis of voting in "agreeable" societies.

Biography: Francis Edward Su is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. He received his B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Texas at Austin and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He is President-Elect of the Mathematical Association of America. His research is in geometric combinatorics and applications to the social sciences, and he has co-authored numerous papers with undergraduates. He also has a passion for teaching and popularizing mathematics. From the Mathematical Association of America, he received the 2001 Hasse Prize for expository writing, and the 2004 Alder Award and the 2013 Haimo Award for distinguished teaching. He authors the popular Math Fun Facts website and iPhone app. His hobbies include songwriting, gardening, photography, and theology. Just like mathematics, these are modes of creative expression that divinely blend structure and freedom, truth and beauty, reflection and action.

Read more about Su's lecture.