Archive for the ‘Math in Life’ Category.

Mini Stupidity

My grandkids like playing a game while I drive. They look out the window to spot the cars they like and score points. A Jeep is 1, a convertible is 10, a Mini Cooper is 40, and a Bug is 100. If we are lucky and see a convertible Mini or Bug, we get 10 extra points for convertibility. I play with them, of course. As a result, I can recognize minis and bugs from hundreds of miles away (I am exaggerating).

Recently, a Mini annoyed me. I was driving behind one, warmly thinking about my grandchildren, when its right turn signal started flashing. The signal looked like an arrow pointing to the left. I got so confused that my grandkids flew from my mind.

When I came home, I started googling and discovered that Mini designers wanted the British symbolism on their cars. The right signal is reminiscent of the right half of the British flag.

UK flag
Mini Cooper Right Turn Signal

Here is the picture from Reddit with the left turn signal on.

Mini Cooper Turn Signal

I am writing this essay but afraid to show my grandkids these pictures. They would be maxi-disappointed with Minis.


Follow Your Heart?

“Follow your heart!” This is the most common advice for young people contemplating their future career path. This is not good advice. At some point in my life, the most popular aspiration among my friends’ children was to become opera singers. But the world only has room for a few opera singers. All of these children ended up doing something completely unrelated.

Aspiring to be a mathematician is a much more practical dream. There are so many professions that are friendly to mathematicians: actuary, finance, economics, teaching, computer science, cryptography, and programming, to name a few. Unlike opera singers, skilled mathematicians can find a way to get paid for their mathematical gifts.

However, most of the youngsters around me want to be research mathematicians. This is a different story. My adviser, Israel Gelfand, told everyone that if they could survive without mathematics, they should drop it. I did drop mathematics for some time to care for my children, but I couldn’t live without mathematics. I fed math to my children for breakfast and pursued math hobbies that could fit a single mother’s lifestyle. Well, that means I was mostly working with sequences for the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences and building the database for my Number Gossip website. But I digress.

I agree with Gelfand. Research in math as a career choice is non-trivial. Here are some of the big issues:

  • Money. An entry-level salary for MIT undergraduate alums is about twice as much as graduate students’ stipends. This discrepancy in income continues for a long time.
  • Location. It is challenging to find a professorship. People looking for academic jobs are expected to send hundreds of job applications and accept a position anywhere in the country. This might be unacceptable for people who value their family and roots.
  • Time. Many research mathematicians I know work 24/7. Not always by choice. Some want to secure a future tenure and need to publish papers in addition to teaching innovative courses. Some do want to do research but are too distracted with their routine and administrative tasks. As a result, their research spills out into nights and weekends.
  • Gender and such. Discrimination is a separate big problem for women and minorities, which I do not want to discuss today.

So what would I suggest for young people who love math?

Many people who love math do not really love math per se. They love the way of thinking that math encourages. They love logic, generating ideas, precision, innovation, and so on. This makes their potential job search much wider. Such people might enjoy programming, cryptography, data science, actuarial science, finance, economics, computer science, engineering, etc. I know students planned to become mathematicians but tried an internship in finance and found their real passion.

For those who want to be closer to mathematics, there is always teaching: the world needs way more math teachers than research mathematicians. Plus, teaching provides a strong feeling of making an impact.

So what do I suggest for young people who love opera singing?

Many skills are less in demand than mathematics. It is important to be realistic. So here is my advice:

  • Expand your skill set. If you love opera singing, working as a voice coach might be a solution.
  • Explore secondary interests. If you also enjoy programming, you might find your happiness by building music software.
  • Have a backup plan. You might become a lawyer to support yourself and your family and keep your love of music as a hobby, for example, by singing in a choir.
  • Meet yourself halfway. You might get a half-time job to feed yourself and work on your music business for the other half of the time.

I know a former Soviet mathematician who worked as a night guard and used his quiet work time to invent theorems. He was a good mathematician but couldn’t find a research position because he was Jewish. He later immigrated to the US and found a professorship. So sometimes my advice for opera singers works for mathematicians too.


Dividing Chores

Before dividing chores, let’s divide a cake. Suppose I bought a two-layer cake. One layer is chocolate and the other is vanilla. Suppose I love chocolate and hate vanilla, My friend, Joe, is the opposite: he loves vanilla and hates chocolate. It’s very easy to divide the cake. I take all the chocolate, and Joe takes all the vanilla. I think I am lucky to get the full value of the whole cake. Joe feels lucky too.

My point is that people with different tastes can divide things so that both get more than half by their own estimates.

Let’s look at another example. Suppose Alice and Bob are divorcing. Their estate consists of one valuable thing: a portrait of Alice’s grandfather. Alice loved her grandfather and values the portrait at 10,000 dollars. Meanwhile, Bob values it the same as its market value, 2,000 dollars. There exists a division algorithm, called the Knaster procedure, which allows them to divide the portrait so that both of them end up with the same amount of money on top of their perceived half of the estate.

I will skip the calculations. The end result is that Alice gets the portrait and pays Bob 3,000 dollars. In her view, she gets a portrait worth 10,000 and loses 3,000. Her total gain is 7,000 dollars, which is 2,000 more than her estimated half. Bob gets 3,000 dollars. In his view, half of the estate is 1,000 dollars, and he gets 2,000 more than that.

The bigger the difference in perceived value, the more each person gets in addition to their expected half. Suppose this difference is D. If you trust my calculations, the Knaster procedure means each person gets D/4, in addition to one half of their estate’s perceived value.

The same idea can be applied to chores. Suppose I hate shopping while my husband hates doing the dishes. So, I can do the dishes, and he can shop. And we can live happily ever after without doing the things we hate.

So, theoretically, it is very profitable for two people to live together. Have you seen couples where each one thinks that they won the lottery by marrying their partner? Such couples benefit from dividing chores, appreciate their partners’ help, and are happy.

I have seen such couples, though not many. Actually, not many at all. If mathematics says that living together should be profitable, then why are happy couples such a rarity?

I will divide unhappy couples into four categories depending on whether they both benefit from dividing the chores and whether they both appreciate each other.

Benefit and appreciate. In this case, other parameters could affect their happiness: love, sex, children, jobs, and so on. Consider, for example, Alice and Bob. Alice relies on her husband for financial support for her and their small children and appreciates said support. Bob likes how Alice cares for the children and appreciates her for that. However, Alice doesn’t love Bob anymore, and Bob wants something special in his sex life but is afraid to request it from Alice. They are both profoundly unhappy.

Benefit and do not appreciate. It is possible that both people do not appreciate each other, or it could be just one. In addition, it could be that a person underestimates the real value of the partner’s contribution, or it could be that the appreciation is not enough for the partner. This became a more complicated paragraph than I initially expected. As Lev Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So, let me have two subcases.

Benefit and do not appreciate. Case 1. Underestimation. Such couples have a good division of labor but underestimate each others’ contribution. For example, Bob thinks that staying at home with children is a walk in the park. He thinks his job is way more difficult than his wife’s daily caring for the house and the children. He assumes that when he returns from work, the house needs to be clean and dinner ready. He is very angry when this doesn’t happen. Alice is very unhappy as she knows how much she actually works.

Benefit and do not appreciate. Case 2. No gratitude. Such couples have a good division of labor but do not express their gratitude sufficiently for the other partner. For example, Alice wants Bob to take her out to dinner as a thank you. Or to say thank you on a regular basis. But Bob brags to his friends that he is lucky in marriage and thinks that this is enough. Everyone but her knows that he feels lucky.

Do not benefit. It is usually one person who is used. There are many ways for people to force their spouses to divide the chores in their favor. There are many types of abusive relationships. I do not even want to give an example. After all, my goal was to discuss the mathematics of chores’ division, not to analyze why people do not divide their labor fairly.

Special cases. Life is complicated. Here is the case that doesn’t quite fit the cases above as the division of chores with time delays. For example, Alice worked and cared for the children while Bob went to medical school. The benefit for Alice was implied in the future. Bob promised to shower her with money when he would get rich. However, as soon as he got rich, he showered someone else.

The mathematics show that living with a partner can be extremely beneficial for both. But people’s emotions are complicated. They do not follow mathematics and often mess it up in more ways than I can imagine.


A Random Pair of Friends

Consider a group of people in which some are friends. We assume that friendship is symmetric: if Alice is Bob’s friend, then Bob is Alice’s friend. That means we can build a friendship graph where vertices are people and edges correspond to friendships. Let’s assume that every person has at least one friend, so the friendship graph doesn’t have isolated vertices.

Darla needs to conduct research by surveying random pairs of friends. But first, she has to find those pairs. To ensure that the pairs are randomly selected, she must pick two random people from the group, contact them, and ask them whether or not they are friends. If they are, she gives them her questionnaire. If not, Darla wasted tons of time and had to keep looking.

The group she is surveying is enormous. So, when she picks two random people, they typically have never even heard of each other. Bother!

Darla decides to speed up the process. She would pick a random person, ask them for a list of friends, and then randomly pick one person from the list. Since every person has at least one friend, Darla always ends up with a filled questionnaire.

Puzzle question. Why is Darla’s method wrong? Can you describe the pairs of friends her method favors?


Dear Parents of Math Geniuses

I often receive letters from parents of math geniuses — “My twelve-year-old is reading an algebraic geometry book: accept him to PRIMES,” or “My ten-year-old finished her calculus course: here is her picture to post on your blog,” or “My two-year-old knows the multiplication table, can you write a research paper with him?” The last letter was a sarcastic extrapolation.

Introductory Calculus for Infants

I am happy to hear that there are a lot of math geniuses out there. They are potentially our future PRIMES and PRIMES STEP students. But, it is difficult to impress me. The fact that children know things early doesn’t tell me much. I’ve seen a student who didn’t know arithmetic and managed to pass calculus. I’ve also met a student claiming the full knowledge of fusion categories, which later appeared to be from half-watching a five-minute YouTube video.

There are a lot of products catering to parents who want to bring up geniuses. My grandson received a calculus book for his first birthday: Introductory Calculus For Infants. Ten years later, he still is not ready for calculus.

Back to gifted children. Once a mom brought us her kid, who I can’t forget. The child bragged that he solved 30 thousand math problems. What do you think my first thought was? Actually, I had two first thoughts: 1) Why on Earth would anyone count all the problems they solved? 2) And, what is the difficulty of the problems he solved 30 thousand of?

From time to time, I receive an email from a parent whose child is a true math genius. My answer to this parent is the same as to any other parent: “Let your child apply to our programs. We do a great job at working with math geniuses.”

Our programs’ admissions are done by entrance tests. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, the heavily advertised kids often do poorly on these tests. It could be that the parents overestimate their children’s abilities. But sometimes, the situation is more interesting and sad: I have seen children who sabotage the entrance tests so as not to be accepted into our programs. We also had students give us hints on their application forms that they were forced to apply.

In the first version of this essay, I wrote funny stories of what these students did. Then, I erased the stories. I do not want the parents to know how their children are trying to free themselves.

Dear parents, do not push your children into our programs. If they do not want to be mathematicians, you are decreasing their chances of getting into a good college. Imagine an admission officer who reads an essay from a student who wants to be a doctor but wastes ten hours a week on a prestigious math research program. Such a student doesn’t qualify as a potential math genius, as their passion lies elsewhere. Nor does this student qualify as a future doctor, as they didn’t do anything to pursue their claimed passion. In the end, the student is written off as a person with weak character.

On the other hand, the students who do want to be in our programs, thrive. They often start breathing mathematics and are extremely successful. Encourage your children to apply to our programs if they have BOTH: the gift for mathematics and the heart for it.


How Much Would You Pay Me to Read Your Email?

I am so tired of spam emails. I keep thinking about how we can fight spam, and here is an idea.

Gmail should change its system: every email you send to me would cost 1 dollar, payable to me. We can add an exception for people on my contact list. Everyone else, pay up!

I do not often contact strangers. But if I do, it is always important. So paying 1 dollar seems more than fair. On the other hand, this system will immediately discourage mass emails to strangers. Spam would go down, and I would stop receiving emails inviting me to buy a pill to increase the size of a body part I do not have.

This idea of getting paid for reading an email is not new. It was implemented by Jim Sanborn, the creator of the famous Kryptos sculpture. Kryptos is located at the CIA headquarters and has four encrypted messages. People tried to decrypt them and would send Jim their wrong solutions. Jim got tired of all the emails and administered Kryptos fees. Anyone who wants Jim to check their solution, can do so by paying him 50 dollars. I wonder if Jim would still charge the fee if someone sent him the correct solution.

Thinking about it, I would like the payable email system to be customizable, so I can charge whatever I want. After all, I do value my time.

Gmail could get a small percentage. Either Gmail, together with me, gets rich, or spam goes away. Both outcomes would make my life easier.


Sierpińsky Instead of Seifert

Sierpinksi Soap

As my readers know, I am devoted to my students. When I need something I can’t buy, I try to make it. That is why I crocheted a lot of mathematical objects. One day, I resolved to have in my possession a Seifert surface bounded by Borromean rings (a two-sided surface that has Borromean rings as its border).

However, my crocheting skills were not advanced enough, so I signed up for a wet and needle felting workshop. When I showed up, Linda, our teacher, revealed her lesson plan: a felted soap with a nice pink heart on top. It looked cool to have soap inside a sponge, not to mention that wool is anti-bacterial. But I had bigger plans than soap and eagerly waited for no one else to show up.

When my dream materialized, and, as I had hoped, no one else was interested in felt, I asked Linda if we could drop the hearty soap and make my dream thingy. She agreed, but my plan didn’t survive for long. As soon as Linda saw a picture of what I wanted, she got scared. Seifert surfaces were not in the cards, so soap it was. I told her that there was no way I was going to needle-felt a pink heart onto my felted soap. I ended up with a blue Sierpiński gasket.

We had a great time. Linda was teaching me felting, and I was teaching her math. I am a good teacher, so even felters working on a farm enjoy my lessons.

After the workshop, I went online and found my dream surface on Shapeways. In the end, I was happy to just buy it and not have to make it.

Seifert Surface for Borromean Rings

But my felting workshop wasn’t a waste of time: tomorrow I will wash myself with a gasket.


What are Your Math Research Interests?

For students applying to PRIMES, we have a question about their research interests. RSI asks a similar question from their applicants.

I am looking at all the submissions, and this essay will help our applicants to get projects that are well-suited for them.

We, at PRIMES and RSI Math, usually have research projects lined up in advance. That means, we are not creating projects to match applicants’ requests. We match existing projects to students’ backgrounds and interests.

If you are applying to one of these programs, here is my advice.

Don’t be too specific about what you want. Suppose you want to study the symmetries of an icosahedron. This request is too narrow: there is a high probability we do not have such a project. How will we match you to a project? Our hope, in this case, is to find clues in your essay. For example, we might discover that you heard a fascinating lecture on icosahedron’s symmetries, which is why you requested the topic. In this case, we assume that another fascinating lecture on a different topic might also excite you, and you will be matched with a random project. But if your description is broader, say, if you write that you like group theory or geometry, your match won’t be as random.

Specify things you do not want. Given our project distribution, you might not get a project in the area that is your first or even your second choice. On the other hand, if you write to us that you hate geometry, it is very easy to find a project without a geometric component. If there is something you definitely do not want, it is advantageous for you to mention it. Be precise about your advanced knowledge. For example, linear algebra is one of the most powerful tools in mathematics. Not surprisingly, we often have projects that require a serious background in linear algebra and specifically look for students who know it. Unfortunately, we often receive inadequate descriptions of students’ backgrounds. Even if you took a linear algebra course, it might be useful to mention which book you used and how many chapters you covered. This also applies to other advanced topics. An applicant might say they are proficient in cohomologies after half-listening to one half-hour lecture on the topic. This is not proficiency; it only indicates interest. If you claim advanced knowledge, specify the scope. The best way to start is by listing the books you have attempted to read. For each book, describe which chapters you only scanned, which chapters you read and understood, and for which chapters you solved all of the exercises.

Add more information if your first choice is number theory. Almost every year, we have several students requesting number theory. This might be explained by the successes of the Ross and PROMYS summer programs. The graduates from these programs love number theory and have a good number theory background. However, modern number theory is very advanced, and we seldom have these types of projects. So, if number theory is your top choice, there are two things you can do. First, mention your second choice. Second, specify what you like about number theory. For example, if you are into the more abstract parts of number theory, another abstract project might be a good fit.

Describe your priorities in broader terms. It is beneficial for every starting mathematician to figure out the area they like by asking themselves broader questions. If you know the answers to the questions below, it is helpful to write them on the application form.

  • Do you love or hate abstractions?
  • Do you prefer discreet or continuous problems?
  • Is the real-life impact or inner beauty of your project more important to you?
  • Do you enjoy having a visual component to your project?
  • Do you like when problems involve programs and calculations?

If you follow my advice, you might get a project that matches your tastes better. Not only that: figuring out the answers to these questions will help you build the life you love.


Whitehead Links for Ukraine

Whitehead Links for Ukraine

This is my second crocheting project to help finance our new program, Yulia’s Dream, in honor of Yulia Zdanovska, a young Ukrainian math talent killed in the war.

I made four Whitehead links in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. You can read about my other crocheting project in my previous post: Hyperbolic Surfaces for Ukraine.

Fun trivia about the Whitehead links.

  • Why are these links so famous? They are the simplest non-trivial links with the linking number zero.
  • What’s the linking number? The linking number is an invariant of a link. If two loops are not linked (they are called an unlink), their linking number is zero. If they are linked, then their linking number is usually not zero. Here the loops are linked, but the linking number is nevertheless zero. Thus, the linking number can’t differentiate this link from an unlink. To explain how to calculate the linking number, I need to explain another simpler invariant: the crossing number.
  • What’s the crossing number? The crossing number is the smallest number of crossings when projecting the link on a plane. The top two pictures have 6 crossings, and the bottom two pictures have 5. The top two pictures emphasize the symmetry of the link, and the bottom two pictures have the smallest possible number of crossings for the Whitehead link. So the crossing number of the Whitehead link is 5.
  • Can you now explain how to calculate the linking number? One way to calculate the linking number is to choose directions for the blue and yellow loops and select the crossings where the blue is on top. After that, following the chosen direction of the blue loop, at each crossing with the yellow loop, check the latter’s direction. If the direction is from right to left, count it with a plus and, otherwise, with a minus. The total is the linking number. In the case of the Whitehead link, it is zero.
  • Is there a more elegant explanation for why the Whitehead link has the linking number zero? Yes. The linking number only looks at the crossings of two different strands and ignores self-crossings. If you look at the two bottom pictures, there is one self-crossing of the blue loop. Now imagine you change the crossing by moving the top blue strand underneath. After such a transformation, the crossing number doesn’t change, but the loops become unlinked. Thus, the linking number of the Whitehead link must be zero.

Hyperbolic Surfaces for Ukraine

Hyperbolic Surfaces for Ukraine

As you might know, my team started a project, Yulia’s Dream, in honor of Yulia Zdanovska, a young Ukrainian math talent killed in the war.

In this program, we will do what we are great at — help gifted youngsters pursue advanced math. To help the program, I started crocheting hyperbolic surfaces in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. These crochets are designed as gifts to encourage individual donors.

Fun trivia about these hyperbolic surfaces.

  • Why are these surfaces so famous? These surfaces prove that Euclid’s fifth axiom is independent of the other four axioms. The fifth axiom (also known as the parallel postulate) says that if there is a line L and a point P outside of L, then there is exactly one line through P parallel to L. On these hyperbolic surfaces, the first four of Euclid’s axioms hold, while the fifth one doesn’t: if there is a line L and a point P outside of L on such a surface, then there are infinitely many lines through P parallel to L.
  • But what is a line on a hyperbolic surface? A line segment connecting two points is defined as the shortest path between these points, known as a geodesic.
  • How can such a surface be crocheted? I crocheted a tiny circle and continued in a spiral, making 6 stitches in each new row for every 5 stitches in the previous row. This means that each small piece of the crocheted surface is the same throughout the thingy, making these thingies hyperbolic surfaces of constant curvature.
  • What is the constant curvature good for? Constant curvature makes it easy to find lines. You can just fold the thingy, and the resulting crease is a line.
  • Is this thingy a hyperbolic plane? No. A cool theorem states that a hyperbolic plane can’t fit into a 3D space, so whatever someone crochets has to be finite. On second thought, anything someone crochets has to be finite anyway. But I digress. This shape can be viewed as a disc with a hole.
  • The Ukrainian flag is half blue and half yellow, so why do the colors here seem so unevenly distributed? My goal was to use the same amount of blue and yellow yarn per thingy. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to calculate that regardless of how many rows of one color I crochet, to use the same amount of yarn in the second color, I need more than 3 and less than 4 rows of that color. Since I wanted the thingy to be symmetrical, sometimes I had 3, and other times, I had 4 rows of the second color. I also made 4 surfaces where I switched colors every row.

Overall, I crocheted 10 hyperbolic surfaces. If you are interested in donating to help Ukrainian students receive coaching from our program at MIT, the details will be announced on our website shortly.