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Past MAA Distinguished Lectures

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.

Peter Winkler, Dartmouth College
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Abstract: Some games are designed to be thought about, rather than actually playedone example is Chomp, a favorite of Paul Halmos. We'll talk about Chomp and some other provocative games, and perhaps figure out how we would play them if our lives depended on winning.

Biography: Peter Winkler is William Morrill Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Dartmouth College. He is the author of 140 research papers, two books on mathematical puzzles, a book on cryptology in the game of bridge, a portfolio of compositions for ragtime piano, and a dozen patents in cryptography, holography, distributed computing, optical networking, and marine navigation.

Winkler is a past winner of the Lester R. Ford Award for mathematical exposition, and a 2011 winner of the MAA's David P. Robbins Award for his part in determining how far a stack of bricks can be made to hang over the edge of a table.

Read more about Winkler's lecture.

Colm Mulcahy, Spelman College and American University
Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Abstract: The theme of Mathematics Awareness Month 2014, which launches April 1, is "Mathematics, Magic, and Mystery," which is closely patterned after the title of a classic 1956 Dover paperback by the legendary Martin Gardner (1914-2010). Mathematics Awareness Month will provide people with multimedia opportunities to explore 30 updated takes on the kinds of topics Martin made famous via his 300-odd "Mathematical Games" columns for Scientific American, and associated books. These range from hexaflexagons, magic squares, geometric vanishes, möbius bands, and mathemagic, to juggling, Penrose tiles, and the connection between card shuffling and fractals. I'll provide sneak previews of several of these activities, while surveying Martin Gardner's achievements, and highlighting the potential for outreach to the nation's youth.

Biography: Colm Mulcahy is a professor of mathematics at Spelman College, in Atlanta, where he has taught since 1988. He's currently visiting American University in Washington, D.C. Over the last decade, he has been at the forefront of publishing new mathemagical principles and effects for cards, particularly in his long-running bimonthly Card Colm column for the MAA. Some of his card effects have been featured in the New York Times Numberplay blog. His book Mathematical Card Magic: Fifty-Two New Effects was published by AK Peters/CRC Press in 2013.

Mulcahy’s interests are broad, ranging from algebra and number theory to geometry. He earned a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in mathematical science from University College Dublin in his native Ireland, and a Ph.D. from Cornell University for research in the algebraic theory of quadratic forms, under Alex F.T.W. Rosenberg.

Mulcahy gave the MAA Lecture for Students at MAA MathFest 2009 in Portland, Oregon, and is a recipient of MAA's Allendoerfer Award for excellence in expository writing, for an article on image compression using wavelets. He's part of the team heading up Mathematics Awareness Month 2014, which is inspired by the legacy of Martin Gardner, whom he was fortunate to know for the last decade of his life. He also chairs the Martin Gardner Centennial Committee.

Mulcahy tweets at @CardColm and highly recommends that Gardner fans follow @WWMGT and @MGardner100th. Twitter users may also enjoy following @MathAware (Mathematics Awareness Month).

Websites: and

Read more about Mulcahy's lecture.

Glen Van Brummelen, Quest University Canada
Monday, March 10, 2014

cosponsored by HOM SIGMAA (History of Mathematics)

Abstract: Although all triangles (plane and spherical) could already be solved in the early 16th century, trigonometry advanced almost beyond recognition by the time logarithms were invented in 1614. From just the sine function, all six of our current functions were born. With the new functions and the numerical tables that came with them, the theory could be enhanced, simplified, and made more elegant. Most crucially, rather than existing simply as a handmaiden to the astronomy that had given it life, trigonometry became a powerful tool in geography, optics, navigation, surveying, even architecture. This was the period, and trigonometry was the subject, that placed mathematics at the center of a quantitative scientific approach to our world that still flourishes today.

Biography: Glen Van Brummelen of Quest University Canada is a historian of mathematics, especially trigonometry and astronomy in ancient Greece and medieval Islam. He is president of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics (2012-14), and governor-at-large for Canadian members of the Mathematical Association of America (2013-16). In addition to authoring 30 scholarly and 15 encyclopedia articles, he is co-editor of Mathematics and the Historian's Craft (Springer) and author the first history of trigonometry in over a century (The Mathematics of the Heavens and the Earth: The Early History of Trigonometry, Princeton University Press). Van Brummelen recently published Heavenly Mathematics: The Forgotten Art of Spherical Trigonometry (Princeton) and finished co-editing with Nathan Sidoli From Alexandria, Through Baghdad: Surveys and Studies in the Ancient Greek and Medieval Islamic Mathematical Sciences in honor of J. L. Berggren (Springer, 2014).

Read more about Van Brummelen's lecture.