Yale University

Fall 2016 Math Mornings

The mathematical mind does not take weekends off.

It is a way of looking at the world — its shapes, its patterns, its tendencies — that finds expression just as readily on a sleepy Sunday as any other day of the week. Which is a roundabout explanation for the enduring success of Math Mornings at Yale.

Each year since 2012, the Department of Mathematics has organized a series of public, Sunday morning talks on all things mathematical. The talks often draw more than 100 children and their parents to campus from around the region.

“This is a light-hearted outreach series, with no assumptions about what the audience already knows,” said Yair Minsky, Yale’s Einar Hille Professor of Mathematics, who started Math Mornings and continues to coordinate the series. Part of Yale’s Science Outreach program, Math Mondays is partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

This semester’s series opens Oct. 16 at Davies Auditorium, 10 Hillhouse Ave. The program starts at 10:30 a.m. with snacks, math games, and demonstrations. The talk begins at 11 a.m.

“Each time, I’m always a little surprised by how well this is received,” said Minsky, who has given presentations on infinity and topology, among other topics. “I have noticed that kids enjoy learning something conceptual, something they didn’t know before.”

Kids are the driving force behind Math Mornings. Soon after joining the Yale faculty, Minsky had taken his children to the award-winning Science on Saturday lecture series, which introduces kids to fun science topics and involves a variety of Yale researchers. Minsky said he wanted to create a similar lecture series that focused on math — although he understood the challenges that come with bringing mathematics to life for young people.

“Math is abstract, and current research is hard to get across to a general audience,” Minsky said. “You can’t just use your regular lectures.”

That’s why Minsky has sought — and found — lecturers with both a passion for mathematics and a desire to translate complex ideas for a group of non-mathematicians.

“Yair wants to show the beauty of the subject and show that math isn’t just rote memorization,” said Asher Auel, a Gibbs Assistant Professor of Mathematics and one of this semester’s Math Mornings lecturers. “He’s built this into a great event. The audience is always fun, and you can feel the energy in the room.”

Auel’s presentation will be on the concept of symmetry, focusing on the platonic solids, the three-dimensional geometric shapes (tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron) named for the philosopher Plato.

“These are some of the most beautiful geometric shapes that we have,” Auel said. He plans to use the visual beauty of these shapes, plus the natural curiosity of his audience, to structure his presentation, he explained. He’ll steer away from math jargon, as well.

“The challenge is a lack of background terminology,” he said. “To jump a couple of levels during a presentation, it’s a little tricky to do without losing people. The way I approach it is to hint at the deep mathematical structure found within these shapes and show how it emerges naturally from simple questions. It brings you to a point where theory is interacting with intuition.”

Jessi Cisewski, assistant professor of statistics, will give a Math Mornings talk in November that shows how statistics are used in understanding the distant universe.

“Math and statistics are often incorrectly perceived as dull subjects,” Cisewski said. “The Math Mornings program provides a great opportunity to demonstrate to students and their families that math and statistics touches upon many aspects of life in fascinating ways.”

This fall’s slate of Math Mornings includes:

• Oct. 16 — Asher Auel, a Gibbs Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Yale, will talk about “Wallpaper, Platonic Solids, and Symmetry.”

• Nov. 6 — Tarik Aougab of Brown University will explore the question “What’s the Biggest Number You Can Think of?”

• Nov. 13 — Jessi Cisewski, an assistant professor of statistics at Yale, will discuss, “Mapping the Distant Universe: Statistical Methods for Studying the Cosmos.”

For more information about Math Mornings, visit the website.