Archive for the ‘My Career and Personal Life’ Category.

My 1975 IMO Team

My IMO Team, 1975

I just got this picture from my friend Victor Gutenmacher, which I never saw before. My 1975 IMO team is posing at our training grounds before the Olympiad trip to Bulgaria.

Left to right: Boris Yusin, Yuri Ionin, Zoya Moiseyeva (front), Gregory Galperin (back), me, Ilya Yunus, Valentin Skvortsov, Aleksandr Kornyushkin, Sergei Finashin, Sergei Fomin (front), Alexander Reznikov (back), Yuri Shmelev (front), Yuri Neretin (back), Victor Gutenmacher.

Our coaches are in the shot as well. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, all of them moved to the USA. Yuri Ionin, now retired, was a professor at Central Michigan University. Gregory Galperin is a professor at Eastern Illinois University. Sergei Fomin is a professor at the University of Michigan. Victor Gutenmacher worked for BBN Technologies and Siemens PLM Software, and is now retired.

There are two more adults in the picture: Valentin Anatolievich Skvortsov, our leader and Zoya Ivanovna Moiseyeva, our deputy leader. Skvortsov was working at the math department of Moscow State University at that time. The University was angry that he didn’t block some students with Jewish heritage from the team thus allowing them to be accepted to Moscow State University without exams. I wrote a story of how Zoya persuaded Alexander Reznikov not to go to Moscow University to help Valentin. It ruined Alexander’s live, and didn’t even help Valentin. 1975 was Valentin’s last trip as the leader.

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The Annoyance of Hyperbolic Surfaces

A hyperbolic surfaceI do not like making objects with my hands. But I lived in Soviet Russia. So I knew how to crochet, knit, and sew — because in Russia at that time, we didn’t have a choice. I was always bad at it. The only thing I was good at was darning socks: I had to do it too often. By the way, I failed to find a video on how to darn socks the same way my mom taught me.

Then I came to the US. I suddenly found myself in a rich society, where it was cheaper to buy new stuff than to spend the time doing things with my hands. So I happily dropped my craftsmanship.

After not working with my hands for 28 years, one day I needed hyperbolic surfaces for my classes and I couldn’t find any to buy. Hyperbolic surfaces are famous for providing an example when the Euclid’s Fifth axiom doesn’t work. These hyperbolic surfaces look flat locally, so you can continue a line in any given direction. If you draw a line on such a surface and pick a point that is not on the line, then you can draw many lines through the point that are parallel to the given line.

My students are more important than my dislike of crochet, so I decided to just do it myself. I asked my friend Debbie, who knows how to crochet, for advice, and she gave me more than advice. She gave me a hook and a piece of yarn and reminded me how to work the hook. She started me with a small circle. After that all I had to do was add two stitches for each stitch on the perimeter of the circle. The finished product is this green ballish thing that looks like a brain, as in the photo.

Outside the starting circle, each small surface segment of this “brain” looks the same, making the “brain” a surface of constant curvature.

I chose a ratio of 2 to 1, adding two new stitches for each previous stitch. With this ratio, my flattish surface started looking like a ball very fast. The length of the perimeter doubled for every row. Thus each new row I crocheted took the same total amount of time that I had already spent on the whole thing. All the hours I worked on this “brain,” I kept thinking: darn, it is so unrewarding to do this. Annoying as it was, the thing that kept me going was my initial decision to continue to use up all the yarn Debbie had given me. In the end, with this ratio, half the time I worked was spent making the final row.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

I am on TEDEd

A cartoon based on my script is posted on TEDEd: Can you solve the Leonardo da Vinci riddle?.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Innisfree Garden

Innisfree Garden

My mom died in April of 2017. I didn’t even consider flying to Russia for her funeral. April-May is my most demanding work period. We were preparing for the annual PRIMES conference. Four of the projects that I personally mentor were presented at the conference. As a head mentor, I was also helping on all the other projects. During these months, I do not have time to breath.

I felt intensely guilty missing the funeral, but I blocked my emotions and worked. I didn’t shed a tear. Come June-July, I have another busy work period running Mathroots and RSI. August is often a slow month, which I usually use to finish papers that I am writing with my students. But in August, 2017, I needed to put the papers aside and give myself time to grieve. My mood was getting darker and darker. At some point I realized that I was depressed. Surprisingly, I still didn’t shed a tear.

I had been depressed before, and I do not ever want to be in that place again. I ordered myself to stop mourning, and with some positive self-talk, I was able to get myself out of the depression. In the process I didn’t work much in August, leaving me with a huge backlog of papers: I had about 20 papers that needed my immediate attention.

When the academic year began in September, my work was more stressful than ever. On one hand I had a pile of unfinished papers, and on the other hand our programs were growing bigger and more taxing. I limped along and did my best until April of this year. Because I had more stress than ever before. Because April-May is my most intense work time, I had to cancel my social life, stop watching TV, and drop my exercise regime to be able to prepare for our annual PRIMES conference. I was so busy I completely missed the first anniversary of my mom’s death. In the year since her death I had been mourning, but I was still unable to cry. When I realized that I had forgotten this date, I felt more severe guilt than ever. I called my sister in Moscow. She told me that she had ignored the death anniversary too. She had done it on purpose. It is better to celebrate life than death, she told me, and it made me feel better.

When the PRIMES conference was over, it was clear that my work was overtaking my life. I decided to go away for a day to rethink my priorities.

I googled Googled around for a place to go, and found the Innisfree garden. The website claimed that the garden is recognized as one of the world’s ten best gardens. Sounded fitting for rethinking a life.

The Innisfree Garden is different from other gardens that I have seen. With my untrained eye, I couldn’t distinguish what was man-made and what was nature. Slowly it became clear that things that look like nature are in reality a work of genius. The human touch amplified the natural beauty of the land and transformed it into something out of this world: beautiful, peaceful, and serene.

I spent hours in the garden. When I was about to leave, my floodgates were open. I started crying. Mom, I love you; please forgive me.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Richard Guy

At G4G13 with Richard Guy

I was very happy to hang out with my oldest coauthor, Richard Guy, at the Gathering for Gardner conference in Atlanta in April 2018. By the way, Richard Guy is 101 years old.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Mathy Puzzles at 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt

I was on the writing team for the 2018 MIT Mystery Hunt. I am pleased that the hunt got very positive reviews from the participants. I spent tons of hours working on the hunt and it is good that folks liked it. I edited and tested a lot of puzzles. Here is my review of these year’s puzzles that are math-related.

I already posted an essay about the puzzles I wrote myself. Four of my five puzzles are math-related, so I am including them below for completeness. I will mention the topic of each puzzle unless it is a spoiler.

I start with Nikoli-type puzzles. Four elegant Nikoli-type puzzles were written or cowritten by Denis Auroux. In all of them the rules of the logic are stated at the beginning. That means the logic part doesn’t contain a mystery and can be solved directly.

  • Good Fences Make Sad and Disgusted Neighbors (by Denis Auroux). You can guess by the title that this puzzle was in the emotions round corresponding to sadness and disgust. This is an interesting variation on the hexagonal Slitherlink. This is a relatively easy puzzle.
  • Shoal Patrol (by Denis Auroux and James Douberley). Each grid is a combination of Battleship, Minesweeper, and a loop puzzle. These are difficult, but satisfying puzzles. The extraction step is not mathematical and not completely trivial.
  • Submarine Patrol (by Denis Auroux and James Douberley). This is a 3D version of Shoal Patrol.
  • Hashiwokakuro (Count your bridges) (by Denis Auroux). This is a mixture of Hashi and Kakuro. I enjoyed the puzzle while I tested it. The extraction is trivial.
  • A Learning Path (by Tanya Khovanova and Xavid). This is a path logic puzzle that was targeted for new hunters. It contains self-referencing hints and solving techniques.

There were several puzzles that were very mathematical.

There were also some math-related or computer-sciency puzzles.

  • The Next Generation (by Colin Liotta). I enjoyed being an editor of this puzzle.
  • Disorientation (by Alex Churchill). This puzzle has a beautiful visual component.
  • Message in a Bottle (by Nathan Fung). The puzzle doesn’t look like it has something to do with mathematics, but my testing of it was very satisfying. I guessed from the start what it was about.
  • Self-Referential Mania (by Justin Melvin). Self-referential logic puzzle, which I enjoyed editing.
  • Bark Ode (by Elizabeth French, Justin Melvin, and Erica Newman). The pictures are so cute.
  • Executive Relationship Commandments (by Robin Deits, John Toomey, and Michele Pratusevich). I didn’t see this puzzle until after the hunt. I wish I could have tested this puzzle with my son Alexey, who is a computer scientist.

There were also several decryption puzzles:

  • Word Search (by Tanya Khovanova). A crypto word search.
  • Texts From Mom (by Elizabeth French and Justin Melvin ). A text enciphered with emojis.
  • Marked Deck (by Colin Liotta and Leland Aldridge). One of my favorite puzzles. Hunters received a physucal deck of cards that was laser cut. You can buy the deck at Etsy. The art in this puzzle is beautiful, but the puzzle also has a non-trivial decryption step.

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Trump and Pirates

Here is a famous math problem I never before wrote about:

Puzzle. Five pirates discovered a treasure of 100 gold coins. They decide to split the coins using the following scheme. The most senior pirate proposes how to share the coins, and all the pirates vote for or against it. If 50% or more of the pirates vote for it, then the coins will be shared that way. Otherwise, the pirate proposing the scheme will be thrown overboard, and the process is repeated with the next most senior pirate making a proposal.

As pirates tend to be a bloodthirsty bunch, if a pirate would get the same number of coins whether he votes for or against a proposal, he will vote against so that the pirate who proposed the plan will be thrown overboard. Assuming that all five pirates are intelligent, rational, greedy, and do not wish to die, how will the coins be distributed?

You can find the solution in many places including Wikipedia’s Pirate game. The answer is surprising: the most senior pirate gets 98 coins, and the third and the fifth pirates by seniority get one coin each. I always hated this puzzle, but never bothered to think through and figure out why. Now I know.

This puzzle emphasizes the flaws of majority voting. The procedure is purely democratic, but it results in extreme inequality.

That means a democracy needs to have a mechanism to prohibit the president from blatantly benefiting himself. With our current president these mechanisms stopped working. Given that Trump does everything to enrich himself, the pirates puzzle tells us what to expect in the near future.

We, Americans, will lose everything: money, clean air and water, national parks, future climate, health, social security, and so on, while Trump will make money.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Why?

In mathematics one of the most important questions is why. Let us consider a problem:

Problem. A number has three hundred ones and three hundred zeroes. Can it be a square?

The solution goes like this. Consider divisibility of this number by 9. The sum of the digits is 300. That means the number is divisible by 3, but not by 9. Therefore, it can’t be a square.

Why do we consider divisibility by 9? The divisibility by 9 is a very powerful tool, but why was it the first thing that came to my mind? The divisibility by 9 doesn’t depend on the order of the digits. Whenever I see a problem where the question talks about digits that can be in any order, the first tool to use is the divisibility by 9.

The why question, is very important in mathematics. But it is also very important in life. It took me many years to start asking why people did this or that. I remember my mom was visiting me in the US. Every time I came back from work, she complained that she was tired. Why? Because she did the laundry in the bath tub. She wouldn’t use my washing machine, because she didn’t have such a thing in Russia. I promised her that I’d do the laundry myself when there was a sufficient pile. However, she insisted that the dirty clothes annoyed her. I would point that my water bill went up. And so on.

We argued like this every day. We were both frustrated. Then I asked myself why. Why does she do the laundry? The answer was there. She wanted to be helpful. I calmed down and stopped arguing with her. I sucked it up and paid the water bills. Her time with me turned into the most harmonious visit we ever had. Unfortunately, it was the last.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

My First Husband with My Third Husband

Bernstein and Goncharov

The year is 1994. The man on the left is my first husband, Alexander Goncharov. Although we were out of touch for a decade, when I married my third husband, Joseph Bernstein (on the right), Goncharov started visiting us. It wasn’t me he was interested in: he wanted to talk mathematics with my husband. I found this situation hilarious, so I took this photo.

But that’s not all. My second husband, Andrey Radul, is not in the picture. But all four of us were students of Israel Gelfand. In short, my three ex-husbands and I are mathematical siblings — that is, we are all one big happy mathematical family.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Best Writing on Mathematics 2016

Best Writing on Mathematics 2016The Best Writing on Mathematics 2016 is out. I am happy that my paper The Pioneering Role of the Sierpinski Gasket is included. The paper is written jointly with my high-school students Eric Nie and Alok Puranik as our PRIMES-2014 project.

At the end of the book there is a short list of notable writings that were considered but didn’t make it. The “short” list is actually a dozen pages long. And it includes two more papers of mine:

To continue bragging, I want to mention that my paper A Line of Sages was on the short list for 2015 volume. And my paper Conway’s Wizards was included in the 2014 volume.Share:Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail