Joint Mathematics Meetings 2011

I spent last week in New Orleans for the Joint Mathematics Meetings 2011. I’d made a rather last minute booking after noticing a couple of sessions could be useful, and hadn’t quite grasped the scale of the event. I’d normally think of 200 mathematicians as a large gathering, but the JMM had over six thousand participants and at peak more than thirty parallel sessions to choose between… the densely typed book of abstracts runs to 450 pages! Hence, as well as the content that justifies dipping into my travel budget, I was able to see a wide range of talks purely out of curiosity. So, partly for my own future convenience, and partly to give some indication of the range available, I thought I’d note down everything I attended. As that was 42 talks – plus an art exhibition and a film – this post got rather long, so the rest is beneath the cut.

AMS Contributed Paper Sessions: Combinatorics and Graph Theory, I
Y. Kim, Cycle-saturated graphs with minimum number of edges.
D. Pragel, Algebraic and Graph-Theoretic Properties of the Box Product of Two Paths.
A. Barghi, Firefighting on Random Geometric Graphs.
J. Ellis-Monaghan, Ribbon Graphs and Twisted Duality.
J. Fierson, Some graph theoretical results for the task mapping problem for parallel computers.
S. Raval, Complex Contagions on Graph Dynamical Systems.

Although I’m officially a number theorist (honest, it says so right there in the sidebar!) much of my thesis topic and subsequent work has been more concerned with graphs, and there was plenty of interest on offer here.

From a research perspective the box product construction particularly caught my attention: in the presented work, products of paths were considered, which yield grids that can be sliced vertically into copies of one factor, and horizontally into the other. This carries over into some nice structural properties of the adjacency matrix, and they were able to come up with a particularly neat characterisation of its determinant based on the length of the paths. The obvious next step would be to try something more complicated than paths, and I wonder if some candidates from my own studies of cyclotomic graphs might be suitable.

On the other hand, the firefighting problem is something I’d have no idea how to solve, but it seems like I could make an undergrad project out of it – or a web game! Given a graph, some vertices are specified as being on fire. Each round, firefighters may be placed at any vertices that aren’t on fire, then the fire spreads to any neighbouring vertices that haven’t been protected in this way. On an infinite graph, the question is whether such a fire can be contained or could burn indefinitely.

AMS Colloquium Lectures
A. Lubotzky, Expander graphs in pure and applied mathematics, I.

More in the graph-theory line: unfortunately I was only able to attend this, the first of a series of three talks by Alex Lubotzky on the subject, but at least I now know what expander graphs are and why I might care! The original motivation was practical: in designing a communications network (be it mobile phones or multicore processors) you want short routes between nodes for speed and reliability, but as few connections between nodes as possible to minimise cost. Expander graphs are those which (remarkably) manage to balance these opposing properties, but they also find application in a surprising range of abstract mathematical topics.

MAA Contributed Paper Sessions: Cryptology for Undergraduates
D. Cabarcas, Algebraic Cryptanalysis as a tool for teaching Cryptology.
D. Spickler, Cryptography Tools: A Teaching Tool for the Investigation of Classical Cryptography and Cryptanalysis. (Cryptography Tools)
C. Beaver, Group Signature Schemes: How to share a secret without telling it.
A. Li, Cryptography, a Great Topic for Undergraduate Mathematics Courses.
T. Feil, A Cryptology Course for the Non-Mathematician.
R. Talbert, A Brief Fly-Through of Cryptology for First-Semester Students using Active Learning and Common Technology.
R. Beezer, A first-year seminar in cryptology. (slides).
S. Boersma, Student Codebooks: An in-depth writing assignment.
K. Smith, Codes in History, the Arts, and Literature.
K. Meyer, Making Cryptography Come Alive.
M. May, Using Cryptography to Show Students that Math is Everywhere.

This session was one of my reasons for making the long trip, and was definitely worth it. Based on the enthuiasm of the speakers, the feedback they’ve received from their students, and the sheer number of people who turned up for this session, I think it’s safe to say that cryptography is definitely worth offering in the undergraduate syllabus. The American undergraduate experience is rather different to the English one I had, or the Scottish one I tutored for, and in particular there’s a need for mathematics courses for non-mathematics students. Several speakers were able to provide a cryptology course for such an audience, as the mathematical prerequisites can be made fairly modest and supplemented by the history of the subject, or its relevance today to topics like privacy and security online. One even managed to assess it through written projects, despite the protests of the more mathematically inclined students! The consensus seems to be that if you’re going to teach such a course, your starting point should be Cryptography by Trappe and Washington, and -despite my love of the discrete log problem – it’s probably best to stick to symmetric crypto and a bit of RSA. Various speakers had developed software to remove some of the computational grind (such as crypto tools, linked above), but the coolest contribution was probably instructions (PDF) on how to make an Enigma machine out of a pringles can!

AMS-SIAM Special Session on Mathematics of Computation: Algebra and Number Theory, I & II
M. O’Sullivan, The sum-product algorithm for binary codes having check nodes of degree two.
D. Harm, Complexity of the Graph Isomorphism Problem.
N. Boston, Combining Group Theory and Number Theory Computations.
M. Jacobson, Class Group and Regulator Computation in Quadratic Fields.
A. Sutherland, Genus 1 point counting in quadratic space and essentially quartic time.
A. Silverberg, Finding the rational points on a certain genus 12 curve.
R. Scheidler, Efficient Divisor Reduction on Hyperelliptic Curves.
D. Moulton, Finding small sets whose subset sums include a given set.
J. Silverman, Lehmer’s Conjecture and points on elliptic curves that are congruent to torsion points.
C. Smyth, Minimal polynomials of algebraic numbers with rational parameters.
K. Hare, Pisot and Salem polynomials dividing Newman polynomials.

This session was the other reason for my attendance – Mahler measure is quite a niche topic, so with two talks on the agenda here I felt I should turn up, but they weren’t the only draw. If you dig deep enough in this blog, you’ll find that I spent the start of my PhD thinking about point counting problems and hyperelliptic curve arithmetic, which both featured here. A particular highlight was Andrew Sutherland’s talk, which presented improvements to SEA which have led to a substantially larger record for point counting on elliptic curves.

MAA Session on New and Continuing Connections between Math and the Arts, I

Fractal Tree No. 3 by R. Fathauer

M. Garner, Sequences, Series, Combinatorics, and Probability in the Early Plate Work of Jennifer Bartlett.
V. hart, Hyperbolic Planes Take Off! (video)
V. Bulatov, Tilings of hyperbolic space and their visualisation.
D. Chavey, Glide Reflections as a Cultural and Artistic Value.
R. Sarhangi, A Workshop in Geometric Constructions of Mosaic Designs.
F. Ronning, Islamic decorations and wallpaper groups.
G. Hart, Art at the Museum of Mathematics.
R. Fathauer, Photographic Fractal Trees.

`Mathematical Art’ usually conjures up images of fractals, but there’s a lot more to it than that and several themes emerged from this session and the attached exhibition.

The Alhambra in Spain gets another bump up my list of potential mathematical tourism sites: although it seems that debate continues over whether all seventeen wallpaper tilings can be found there, it seems to have the best (and best known) collection. But other talks mentioned their appearance in everything from Tibetan sand mandalas to Norwegian rosemaling. I discovered that there’s such a thing as ethnomathematics, which aims to go beyond cataloguing such connections between mathematics and culture and attempt to explain them.

Also finding its way to the travel list is the Museum of Mathematics, although I’ll have to wait a bit as it doesn’t exist yet… hopefully it’ll open in 2012. Rather than focus on dry historical exhibits, their vision is for installation pieces like a race circuit for square-wheel tricycles, large geometric sculptures, and interactive digital art. The target audience might be schoolkids, but I suspect I’d walk around with a big smile on my face too!

Another exciting project I was oblivious to is the Bridges series of conferences on connections between maths and art: these combine invited talks and papers (with peer-reviewed proceedings) with hands-on activities, an art exhibition, film screenings, all in a location chosen to inspire! The next one is at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, in July.

AMS Special Session on Self-Organization in Human, Biological, and Artificial Systems, II
R. Niemeyer, Graphs, Dynamical Systems, Fractals: A Heuristic Framework for Modeling the Structure and Dynamics of Complex Interactions Across Multiple levels of Analysis.
L. Smith, An Agent-Based Approach to Modeling Gang Rivalries.

Although it’s a long way from my research activities, emergent systems is one of the topics that first steered me towards mathematics and computer science. So with a spare hour to fill, I decided to indulge an old interest by sampling a couple of talks from this session. Laura Smith’s was particularly intriguing: based partly on geographic constraints, her team of mathematicians and criminologists was able to build a model of the (violent) interactions of LA’s numerous gangs. The hope is that such a model would be accurate enough to predict where best to focus police efforts to reduce conflict, although because I’ve been watching too much Castle lately I found myself dreaming up scenarios of mathematically-savvy gang bosses using optimization theory to maximise their territory instead…

MAA Invited Addresses
M. Matchett Wood, Binary quadratic forms: From Gauss to algebraic geometry
R. Bell, Lessons from the Netflix Prize

Melanie Matchett Wood’s talk was in the rare category of those from which I felt I’d gained some insight into abstract algebra. Whilst modern terminology is probably the best working language, I think there’s a lot to be said for tracing the historical roots of a topic, rather than simply overwriting it with what can be opaque notation. Gauss may have essentially being doing group theory, but he didn’t know that, and the motivation and inspiration is perhaps easier to understand without that abstraction.

The Netflix prize offered US$1million for a 10% improvement to their film recommendation algorithm. That might seem a lot easier than other million dollar prize problems, compared to the ferociously difficult millenium problems, for instance. But it also meant a lot more viable competition, especially as when Robert Bell’s team hit the required 10%, they didn’t simply win but triggered a 30 day endgame which saw alliances form and the leadership change hands repeatedly: in the end, “BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos” triumphed by just a fraction of a percent and a twenty minute earlier submission time than their closest rivals. His talk captured this drama, entertained with some of the sub-problems encountered (Why is it so hard to tell who’ll like Napoleon Dynamite? What happens if a user gets a girlfriend? and just who has the time to rate 99% of the netflix database?), and also described plenty of the mathematics behind their algorithm. There’s a documentary film in there somewhere…

AMS-MAA-SIAM Gerald and Judith Porter Public Lecture and Special Film Presentation
R. Lang, From flapping birds to space telescopes: The mathematics of origami.
Film: Between the Folds.

…which leads me neatly to the final events. Robert Lang seems to have been central to the revolution in Origami caused by the mathematisation of the discipline. The ability to algorithmically create folding patterns of stick-figure skeletons has pushed forward the level of detail that can be achieved with a single sheet; but as with other media, the possibility of greater realism has led also to a reaction in the form of abstract works, from mathematically-inspired patterns to ‘single crease’ sculptures. But it’s not just about art: origami folding lends itself to the design of airbags and heart stents, or to the problem of getting large structures into space.

All of which appears in the film Between the Folds, that I’m going to recommend regardless of the contents of your netflix queue. Here’s the trailer:

So all in all I had an excellent time at the JMM; I’m certainly planning to attend the next one, which it seems will be held in Boston even earlier in January. Hopefully I’ll be able to give a talk too- the question is, in which session?

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