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A Unique Expression Of Love For Math


Last week in Boston, 7,000 mathematicians, math teachers and math enthusiasts from all over the world converged for something called the Joint Mathematics Meeting. Naturally, there was a lot of this...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: C plus S minus two.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, S is A plus B and C is two.


BLOCK: But reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro also found a lot that he wasn't expecting.

ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This meeting's like a big family reunion. It just happens to be packed with people who adore math. Sarah-Marie Belcastro is a mathematician based in western Massachusetts. She also crochets and knits. Belcastro pulls out one of her current projects.

SARAH-MARIE BELCASTRO: Okay. This is crochet and this is mathematical. The origin of this is, I wonder what it would look like if I made a hyperbolic mobius band.

SHAPIRO: Belcastro's crocheted mobius band is stunning. She could wear it like a wide bracelet. The edges are ruffled and they're a warm purple. For Belcastro, it's a way of visualizing a mathematical object.

BELCASTRO: I want to see what I'm thinking about better. For a lot of the knitted projects, I can make things that I can look at that I couldn't see otherwise or at least not see as well.

SHAPIRO: Belcastro stands up and, within minutes, she bumps into a colleague and friend of hers.

BELCASTRO: Some origami paper with you?

TOM HULL: Of course I do. You want me to fold something?

SHAPIRO: Tom Hull is a math professor at Western New England University. He studies the math of origami and how to use origami to teach math.

HULL: I'm making something called a square twist. It takes that inner diamond in the center of the paper and literally twists it 90 degrees.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

HULL: I kind of think that you can't do origami without doing math. Whenever you fold a point to a line, you're actually doing calculus. Math is hidden in origami. You just don't see it, but your hands are doing it.

SHAPIRO: I stop in on a mini course on backgammon. A large magnetic playing board stands at the front of the room.

ARTHUR BENJAMIN: Black is trying to build a blockade.

SHAPIRO: After revealing the rules, the instructors launch into a game against the computer. Before long, Arthur Benjamin, a math professor at Harvey Mudd College, dashes to an easel.

BENJAMIN: So the average role in backgammon is seven plus seven over six.

SHAPIRO: The 30 audience members include teachers and professors who might bring something like this to their students. They're rapt, hooked on watching the unfolding game. Eventually, it's over.


SHAPIRO: And the mathematicians have won.

BENJAMIN: Math definitely makes me a better backgammon player. If you can figure out probabilities, it's essentially like rolling the game out infinitely many times. It gives you a great deal of information.


SHAPIRO: In between giving and listening to formal math talks, a good sized crowd has gathered for the mini course on math and dance.

KARL SCHAFFER: One arm up. I don't care if you mirror me or otherwise.

SHAPIRO: Karl Schaffer is leading the class in a full body warm-up on a dance floor that the meeting organizers have provided. Schaffer is a mathematician at De Anza College and co-directs a small contemporary dance troop in California.

SCHAFFER: I would like the participants to experience creating movement phrases and performing them for each other in ways that deal with mathematical concepts.

SHAPIRO: Concepts like shape, symmetry and number sequences. Everywhere I turned at this meeting, I saw mathematicians celebrating the connections between math and the other elements of their lives.

Colin Adams is a mathematician at Williams College who writes and performs plays about math and he says these kinds of efforts help translate a love and passion for math into friendlier arenas.

COLIN ADAMS: You know, I mean, sometimes people get turned off easily because they just get bored and the goal has always been to keep their interest long enough to see the beauty of the mathematics.

SHAPIRO: It's about trying on a kind of aesthetic, one in which math spins and weaves and sings and where it wins the game every single time. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Daniel
Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.