May 11, 2016

Math conference isn’t just for mathematicians

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Mathematics – that is, pure mathematics – is the subject of an upcoming conference at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. But even if you’re the type who dislikes math tasks as simple as balancing your checkbook, you might enjoy this discussion. 

Speakers at the conference, set for May 16-17, will discuss pure mathematics, including algebra and number theory, geometry, logic, topology and other topics, said Wesley Calvert, assistant professor of mathematics. Organizers this year combined the conference with the annual Langenhop Lecture Series, which promotes the importance of mathematics to a general audience. 

The conference will be held in various rooms at the Neckers Building. A schedule of speaker presentations can be found here

The Langenhop Lecture Series is special in that it's a chance to actually hear complex mathematic theory explained in understandable way, Calvert said. Freydoon Shahidi, distinguished professor of mathematics at Purdue University, will give this year’s lecture, which is set for 4 p.m. Monday, May 16, at the John C. Guyon Auditorium in Morris Library. 

Shahidi earned his doctorate in 1975 at Johns Hopkins University and since has made significant contributions to number theory, automorphic forms, and harmonic analysis. Calvert said Shahidi especially is known for the Langlands-Shahidi method, which plays a crucial role in Langlands Program that consists of “inspiring and extensive conjectures that link concepts in various mathematical areas.” 

The Langlands Program, which will be the theme of Shahidi's lecture, is one of the great analogies of the modern world, Calvert said, but it still holds a fair amount of mystery. 

“Shahidi has done more than most other people to advance our knowledge toward knowing that the analogy really does hold, and he's going to tell about this analogy in his lecture. The analogy is between periodic, repeated behavior and symmetry. 

“When I was a graduate student – a few years in – and asked somebody what the Langlands Program was, their answer, in effect, was, ‘well, I can explain it, but it will take me about a semester's worth of lectures,’” Calvert said. “The normal bar to understanding things of mathematical importance and beauty is high.  The aim of this lecture is to lower that bar and let people see what we're so interested in and why.” 

Calvert said even non-mathematicians likely would find the event interesting in the same way they might enjoy a symphony, a modal jazz performance or a non-representational art exhibit. 

“And for the same reasons,” Calvert said. “One doesn't want to hear it because one can build a bridge with it, one wants to hear it because it is an aesthetic experience. One doesn't leave a good performance of a great symphony saying, ‘so that's how they build bridges.’  One leaves the performance saying, ‘that was amazing! That was beautiful!’” 

Mystery is another compelling reason members of the general public might enjoy the conference, Calvert said, as well as pulling back the curtain on what mathematicians actually do. 

“My third-grade son has a vague notion that mathematicians are people who add really big numbers.  Somewhat more sophisticated people think we solve really hard problems like you would find in a calculus textbook.  It's not true,” he said. “What do we really do?  We solve mind puzzles and look for analogies.”