Public Lectures Unveiling Math (PLUM)

Department of Mathematics

Duke University


The PLUM lecture series are aimed at general audience and focused on promoting mathematics in general by presenting inspiring stories about mathematics. They could be based on an incredible journey for finding fundamental truths or could be about how mathematics is used for real world applications. The PLUM is supported by the iiD, by the Department of Math, by the Department of ECE, and by Duke Undergraduate Math Union.

Spring 2019

Speaker: Michael Harris, Professor of Mathematics at Columbia University

March 28 (Thursday), LSRC B101 (Love Auditorium), 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 3pm Physics 101)

Title: Mechanical Mathematician

Abstract: A mathematical claim is only accepted as valid if it is accompanied by a proof. Ideally, a proof should be a deduction from accepted principles that meets two requirements: on the one hand, it must strictly follow the rules of logical reasoning, but on the other hand, it should clarify why the claim had to be valid in the first place. When these two criteria come into conflict, the first takes priority. Some deductions, however, are so long or complex that they cannot be checked for errors by human beings. The success in designing computer systems to provide mechanical verification of the proofs of some famous theorems has led some mathematicians to suggest that all future proofs be written in computer readable code. A few mathematicians have gone so far as to predict that artificial intelligence will make human mathematicians obsolete.

Is mathematics a means to an end that can be achieved as well, or better, by a competent machine as by a human being? If so, what is that end, and why should we trust machines over humans? Or is mathematics rather an end in itself, pursued for its intrinsic human value? If so, what could that value be, and can it ever be shared with machines?


Fall 2018

Speaker: Rachel Levy, Deputy Executive Director of MAA and Professor at Harvey Mudd College

December 3, 2018 (Monday), Physics 128, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 3pm Physics 101)

Title: Mathematical Modeling from Kindergarten to Industry

Abstract: Mathematical Modeling is taking off at all levels of mathematics education. The kinds of math modeling problems students can solve have direct and meaningful connections to the world around us. Modeling helps people engage in data science and mathematical tools that can be of value in any career. Creativity can be inspired by modeling because problems require genuine choices and have multiple solutions. Through modeling problems, teachers, students and families can develop new relationships with the mathematics in the K-12 curriculum.

I work at the Mathematical Association of America, where our mission is to advance the understanding of mathematics and its impact on the world. We have programs like MAA PIC Math that prepare university faculty to engage their students in industrial problems. We also run the AMC mathematics contests that introduce middle, high school and college students to challenging mathematical problem solving.

In my research, I have explored whether students as young as Kindergarten can engage in mathematical modeling in ways that resonate with the ways my undergraduates at Harvey Mudd College engaged in industry-based problems. This means going beyond assignments where models are presented as finished products to mathematical modeling projects that ask a big messy important question and leave it to the modelers to develop and justify a useful solution.

In this talk I will share with you some surprising insights from four years following elementary school mathematical modelers and discuss how observing their teachers improved my own practice as a mathematical modeling educator and researcher.


Fall 2017

Speaker: L. Mahadevan, Professor at School of Engieering and Applied Mathematics, Harvard University

December 6, 2017 (Wednesday), French 2231, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 3pm Physics 101)

Title: Morphogenesis: geometry, physics and biology

Abstract: A century after the publication of D'Arcy Thompson's classic On growth and form his vision has finally begun to permeate into the fabric of modern biology. Within this framework, I will show how a combination of biological and physical experiments, mathematical models and computations allow us to begin unraveling the physical basis for morphogenesis in the context of examples such as shoots, leaves, guts and brains.


Spring 2017

Speaker: Francis Su, Professor at Department of Mathematics, Harvey Mudd College

February 13, 2017 (Monday), Physics 128, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 3pm Physics 101)

Title: Voting in Agreeable Societies

Abstract: When does a candidate have the approval of a majority? How does the geometry of the political spectrum influence the outcome? What does mathematics have to say about how people behave? When mathematical objects have a social interpretation, the associated results have social applications. We will show how some classical mathematics can be used to understand voting in "agreeable" societies. This talk also features research with undergraduates.


Speaker: Henry Segerman, Professor at Department of Mathematics, Oklahoma State University

April 18, 2017 (Tuesday), Physics 130, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 4pm Physics 101)

Title: 3D Shadows: Casting light on the fourth dimension

Abstract: Our brains have evolved in a three-dimensional environment, and so we are very good at visualising two- and three-dimensional objects. But what about four-dimensional objects? The best we can really do is to look at three-dimensional "shadows". Just as a shadow of a three-dimensional object squishes it into the two-dimensional plane, we can squish a four-dimensional shape into three-dimensional space, where we can then make a sculpture of it. If the four-dimensional object isn't too complicated and we choose a good way to squish it, then we can get a very good sense of what it is like. We will explore the sphere in four-dimensional space, the four-dimensional polytopes (which are the four-dimensional versions of the three-dimensional polyhedra), and various 3D printed sculptures, puzzles, and virtual reality experiences that have come from thinking about these things. I talk about these topics and much more in my new book, "Visualizing Mathematics with 3D Printing"


Fall 2016

Speaker: Chris Wiggins, Professor at Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Columbia University

September 20, 2016 (Tuesday), Physics 128, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 4pm Physics 101)

Title: Data Science @ The New York Times

Abstract: TBA


Speaker: Eugenia Cheng, Author and Scientist In Residence at School of the Art Institute of Chicago

October 13, 2016 (Thursday), Physics 128, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 4pm Physics 101)

Title: How to Bake π, Making abstract mathematics palatable

Abstract: Mathematics can be tasty! It is a way of thinking, and not just about numbers. Through unexpectedly connected examples from music, juggling, and baking, I will show that math can be made fun and intriguing for all, through hands-on activities, examples that everyone can relate to, and funny stories. I'll present surprisingly high-level mathematics, including some advanced abstract algebra usually only seen by math majors and graduate students. There will be a distinct emphasis on edible examples.


Spring 2016

Speaker: Tadashi Tokeida, Professor at Department of Mathematics, Stanford University

April 15, 2016 (Friday), Physics 128, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 4pm Physics 101)

Title: A world from a sheet of paper

Abstract: Take a sheet of paper. By folding, stacking, crumpling, tearing, we will tour a rich diversity of phenomena, from geometry and magic tricks to elasticity and the traditional Japanese art of origami. Much of the lecture consists of actual table-top demos, which you can try with family and friends. So then, take a sheet of paper.


Speaker: Mark Goresky, Member at School of Mathematics, Institute for Advanced Study

April 21, 2016 (Thursday), Physics 128, 4:30-5:30pm (Tea at 4pm Physics 101)

Title: A glamorous Hollywood star, a renegade composer, and the mathematical development of spread spectrum communications

Abstract: During World War II Hedy Lamarr, a striking Hollywood actress, together with George Antheil, a radical composer, invented and patented a secret signaling system for the remote control of torpedoes. The ideas in this patent have since developed into one of the ingredients in modern digital wireless communications. The unlikely biography of these two characters, along with some of the more modern developments in wireless communications will be described.


Fall 2015

Speaker: Bruce C. Berndt, Professor at Department of Mathematics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

October 22, 2015 (Thursday), Gross Hall 107, 4:30-5;30pm (Tea at 4pm at Physics 101)

Title: Ramanujan's Life, His Earlier Notebooks and His Lost Notebook

Abstract: Ramanujan was born in southern India in 1887 and died there in 1920 at the age of 32. He had only one year of college, but his mathematical discoveries, made mostly in isolation, have made him one of the 20th and 21st centuries' most influential mathematicians. An account of Ramanujan's life will be presented. Most of Ramanujan's mathematical discoveries were recorded without proofs in notebooks, and a description and history of these notebooks will be provided. In 1976, George Andrews found Ramanujan's "lost notebook" in the library at Trinity College, Cambridge. A history and description of this lost notebook will also be provided. The lecture will be accompanied by photographs of Ramanujan, his home, his school, his notebooks, and those influential in his life, including his mother and wife Janaki.