Geometry Lessons

Squares are trapezoids that have chosen to conform.

Just because the hypotenuse is the shortest path doesn’t mean it’s the best way.

A circle never ends unless you cut it. Break the cycle.

When you turn 360 degrees, you end up in the same place, but you’ve seen the whole room.

Rulers make straight lines until you fall off the edge.

A cute triangle may never be right but at least it won’t be obtuse.

*Like my 30 After 30 post last week, this is another bit of writing from the past I found while searching through random folders on my computer. Original file dates back to 2014.

Missing the Joint Mathematics Meetings

Next weekend, San Antonio will host the world’s largest math meeting. Thousands of mathematicians gathered in the same town? Now, that’s my kind of paradise. But David’s not attending this year, and since it would probably be weird for me to go without him, I’m staying home too. Sad we’ll miss out on the opportunity to connect with old friends.

Instead, I’ll be listening to this Kate Bush song about a man infatuated with pi and planning the party we want to host when the JMM comes to Atlanta in 2017.

Hope everyone attending the meetings this year has a great time. And good luck to those on the job market!

Algebraic Independence Day party ends in tragedy

Controversy erupted at the transcendental numbers’ annual Algebraic Independence Day party today when π arrived with potato salad even though he’d been assigned apple pie in the event invite. When confronted by e, π asserted he was “tired of being pigeonholed.” He then threatened to cut anyone who made a pie joke.

According to eyewitnesses, γ, otherwise known as the Euler-Mascheroni constant, urged π to “act rational.” π responded by forcibly removing γ from the party, insisting he not come back until he could prove he was transcendental.

Several other numbers thought to be transcendental rallied to γ’s defense, physically attacking π.

The mathematical constant, beloved by many around the world, was rushed to l’Hôpital, where he is reported to be in critical condition.

Asked to comment on the incident, e insisted “it was the principle of the matter. The Liouville numbers brought enough potato salad for everyone. π thinks he can get away with anything because he’s popular. The rest of us have had enough.”

The animosity between e and π spells bad news for mathematicians, who for years have been trying to figure out whether both the sum and product of these two numbers are transcendental.

Noted mathematician Dr. Harold Factor had this to say: “We know either π or e+π is transcendental, possibly both, but how are we supposed to make progress if these two numbers can’t be in the same room together?”

We go where the math takes us: Bay Area

Just got back from one of my favorite places in the world, the Bay Area. David and I met as graduate students in Berkeley so we try to get back there as much as possible. This time our travel was math related. David attended a workshop on rational points at the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) in Palo Alto.

On Saturday, after the conference was over, we spent time with a couple of our best friends in San Francisco. I wanted to see the water so we went to the Presidio and drove out past the Golden Gate Bridge. The day was warm for San Francisco. Birds flew overhead, and I longed to be one of them, surfing the wind and diving into the water.


I didn’t want to leave yesterday when our trip ended. I love my life in Atlanta, but I miss the beauty of the Bay Area and our friends who live there. I’m sad today because I want to go back, but I know what I want to go back to doesn’t exist anymore. Most of our friends from graduate school live elsewhere. We’re no longer in our twenties.

And I know my life then wasn’t as rosy as I remember it, but it’s hard to imagine life in the Bay Area as anything but perfect when you look out over the water to the hills across the way.


A series of Taylor jokes


Q: Why was Taylor mad at the TV executives?

A: They passed on his series.


Q: Why would Taylor never run for US president?

A: He doesn’t want to be limited to two terms.


Taylor, Fourier, and Laurent walk into a bar. Bartender says, “We don’t serve your kind.” Taylor says, “Fine, we’ll go sumwhere else.”


Q: What did Taylor write in Fourier’s middle school yearbook?

A: Never transform.


Q: Why did Taylor ditch Laurent?

A: He was always so negative.


Q: Why did Taylor admit Maclaurin to the math PhD program despite his checkered past?

A: He was a special case.


Q: What did Taylor ask his secretary the day before Cauchy’s seminar?

A: “Did you send out a remainder?”


Q: What did Taylor’s preteen daughter say when he encouraged her to be unique?

A: “Stop trying to differentiate me, Dad!”


Taylor has developed a new convergence test: is it a highly successful YA series that’s also a movie starring Shailene Woodley? If so, it’s Divergent.


Taylor’s PR slogan: infinite sums approximated in finite time*

*some restrictions apply


Q: What is Taylor’s favorite breakfast food?

A: Seriesal (a cereal for people who love series).


Q: How many degrees does Taylor claim to have?

A: It depends on the function.


Q: What’s Taylor’s preferred mode of transportation?

A: Jet.


Q: How much does Taylor party?

A: Just enough — he knows his limit.

We go where the math takes us: Banff

Last week I accompanied David to a math conference at the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in the Canadian Rockies.  David first went there in 2007, and I’ve wanted to go back with him ever since.  My first trip did not disappoint!  Great food in the dining halls, fun conversations with mathematicians, Canadian beers, hiking, and best of all, amazing views from the cafe where I worked all week:


I hear the math was good as well!  Watch David’s talk, Rational points on curves and tropical geometry.

How to avoid being a jerk

Last week I posted 4 tips for non-mathematicians attending math dinners.  I encouraged non-mathematicians not to take it personally when mathematicians asked them to defend their beliefs.  I stand by this statement, but I don’t want to excuse all behavior that might come across as bullying.  There’s a clear difference between being genuinely interested in someone’s belief system versus picking on him because his view doesn’t align with your own.  Your argument might be more logically sound, but if your winning really hurts someone’s feelings, was it worth going to war?

If you find you often offend people and you want to change, here are some tips:

1. Be genuine and ask questions that elevate the conversation.

Invest in your conversation partner by asking questions that relay genuine interest in that person rather than making statements intended to showcase how smart you are.

For example, if I say that I really want to raise chickens because everyone in my neighborhood has an urban chicken coop, follow up with a question about the construction of the coop or how many chickens I want to raise rather than pointing out my overgeneralization (not everyone in my neighborhood has an urban chicken coop if I don’t have one).

Calling out someone on semantic errors or harmless logical fallacies might provide some amusement, especially if he’s a good friend, but this can derail the conversation and make people defensive.  Not good if you are trying to get someone new to like you.

2. Avoid stubbornness.

Some people really enjoy arguing, but good arguments involve an open mind and a recognition that the world isn’t black and white.  If you’re with someone who likes arguing, by all means defend your beliefs but don’t be obstinate.  Acknowledge when your conversation partner makes a good point.  Remember that you might not be able to bring him over to your side of the debate.  If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t like arguing, don’t make him have a conversation that he doesn’t want to have.

3. Yes, and…

If you reject every idea someone brings to the table, he’s not going to want to share his ideas with you.  If you’re the kind of person who constantly says “no” when someone suggests something to you or the kind of person who is quick to point out why someone is wrong, try injecting positivity into your interactions.  Instead of saying “no” try saying “yes” if possible and then add something to the conversation related to that point.  Tell stories about things you like doing and people you like rather than detailing the many ways things have gone wrong in your life.

4. If “you being you” offends people you like, change.  

If you find you’re often rejected by people you want to like you and you comfort yourself by saying “I’m just being me,” maybe it’s time to make a change.  This is scary because change involves admitting that there is something you want to modify about your current behavior.  It means conceding that you’re not perfect.  Go ahead…untether yourself from that part of your identity.  You’ll still be you, but now you’re You 2.0, a better version of yourself.

I’m not suggesting we wear happy-all-the-time masks.  It’s good to acknowledge our flaws and our pains as human beings.  But aiming to be positive, genuinely investing in people we meet, and recognizing what aspects of our elitism are rooted in insecurity will all go a long way toward optimizing our relations with others.


4 tips for non-mathematicians attending math dinners

Seminar dinner, conference dinner, generic math gathering, I want to be there.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  I love eating and drinking, and I enjoy both of these activities even more in the company of smart and interesting people.

Still, at more than one math dinner, I’ve been told, “I’m surprised you’re here.  My wife would never want to do this.”

This makes me feel strange, like some mutant math groupie (which, in truth, I am).

I understand where these other non-mathematician partners are coming from.  Mathematicians can be abrasive, and it can feel isolating when you can’t take part in the dinner conversation because you don’t understand the math.  But there’s a lot of fun to be had at these dinners, and sometimes you have to do it for your partner.  So here are my tips for having a good time…

1) Let people talk about math

Nothing is going to turn a group of people against you faster than telling them you hate the thing that they love or that they shouldn’t talk about it in your presence.  The purpose of these dinners is to encourage informal exchanges that will lead to more formal work: project ideas, thesis problems, collaborations, etc.  Don’t stand in the way of mathematics!

Keep in mind when you get together with your coworkers, you talk shop.  Shop talk is generally boring for outsiders. In the case of math conversations, this shop talk is also inaccessible.  Don’t worry.  There’s no need to try to follow the conversation if it becomes technical.

2) Retreat to your rich inner life when necessary

Chances are if you’ve been invited to a math dinner, you’re an interesting person.  People are going to ask you about that.  You’ll get to ask them about the fun things they do: travel for conferences, activities in their home city, etc.  But when the conversation turns to Hodge Decompositions or Del Pezzo surfaces, you’re going to have to amuse yourself, which you can do because you lead a rich inner life.

For me, there’s something very zen about being able to retreat into my own mind when I’m surrounded by people having a conversation that I can’t understand.  It’s like traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

If you want to please your partner, remember a few math words from the conversation and use them later out of context (e.g. Can we start calling hugs tangent bundles?).  Only do this if you’re willing to have a math conversation.  Don’t be a tease.

3) Drink

This one is probably self explanatory.  Even if you don’t drink, though, the point is to focus on aspects of the experience that you can enjoy like the food or the ambiance of the restaurant.  I once attended a conference dinner that included an extended discussion of Joe Harris’s lineage (i.e. his graduate students and the students his students advised).  I found the conversation tedious, but I would gladly listen to it again if it meant I got to eat the multi-course Chinese meal we had that night.

4) Don’t take things personally

Mathematicians spend their days saying “That can’t possibly be true!” and asking “Wait, is that true?”  If you attend enough math dinners, it’s likely that someone will question something you state as fact.  That’s their job.

This really turned me off at first.  I studied demography in graduate school, and at one point early in my relationship with my husband, I got into a discussion with one of his friends about how many people have ever lived on earth.  This was a homework problem in my demographic methods textbook that I’d solved.  I relayed my estimate but this guy countered with an estimate he and his friends had come up with based on how many people died during the Blitz in World War II.  This deeply offended me at the time.  I was the expert!  And for years afterward, I’d express hostility whenever he came up in conversation with my husband.  Then, the guy came to visit us, and I had a really great time with him.  He’s an awesome person, and I felt dumb for having disliked him for all of those years merely because he asked me to defend my position.

This last example demonstrates what I’ve gained from attending math dinners over the past eight years as a non-mathematician: a thicker skin and a fondness for intellectual arguments.  I’m a better thinker today for having spent many an evening at math dinners.