An affinity for numbers isn’t necessarily part of the equation at the National Math Festival. “Don’t count yourself out because you don’t think of yourself as a math person,” says Kirsten Bohl, project lead for Saturday’s event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The third iteration of the free festival, organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, offers a hodgepodge of programming, including presentations, short films, “mathletic” competitions, dance performances, puzzles and games. Bohl emphasizes that while there’s plenty for kids and families, adults could “spend all day taking in juicy talks.” Here are a number to consider.
The Mathematics of Social Choice 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m.; 3:15-4 p.m.
There’s a little election slated for 2020, which means it’s a fine time to consider if there are better methods of determining the wishes of an electorate than our system of plurality voting. Emily Riehl, an assistant math professor at Johns Hopkins University, will examine how various algorithms can have an impact on the way federal, state and local elections play out — and help ensure that the winner reflects voter intent. “What she’s going to do is explore: What if a mathematician did try to make the voting process fairer? How would past elections have turned out differently?” Bohl says. “It’s a great example of how mathematicians are always thinking about different aspects of our lives. Math really is behind everything in the world.”
The Physics of Football 10:15-10:40 a.m.
Football Sunday, the Redskins are up by six, the other team is threatening — and you’re probably not thinking about physics. Yet each collision, each smack you hear when Player One downs Player Two, can be explained by Newton’s third law of motion. “All the energy that’s released in those collisions has to go somewhere — so where does it go?” Bohl says. Former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, who’s a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will reveal the answer. “Part of the fun is that the person sharing this talk is not your high school physics teacher,” Bohl says, promising an engaging conversation featuring footage from the field. Urschel, who retired from pro football in 2017 at age 26, will also present a session on the geometry of chess.
A Fine Art of Problem Solving: How Mathematicians Use Braids to Save the Day, One Ribbon at a Time 12:45-1:30 p.m.; 3:15-4 p.m.
Nancy Scherich turns math into dance. The lifelong performer, who’s a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, studies braid theory; to a mathematician, a braid is a diagram of tangled strands, and there are real-world applications in statistical mechanics, chemistry and biology. In 2017, Scherich won the Dance Your Ph.D. contest hosted by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For her winning entry, she used aerial silk acrobatics and fluorescent hula hoops to help make braid theory less abstract. “At the festival, in addition to her talk, she’ll lead a math Maypole activity,” Bohl says. “So think old English May Day, and many people standing in a circle around a pole holding the ends of ribbons” that they’ll weave together into a pattern. The activity will help explain how and why braids are an important mathematical concept.
Math and Your Love Life 10:15-11 a.m.; 12:45-1:30 p.m.
Annie Raymond, an assistant professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at the University of Massachusetts, takes the romance of numbers literally. There’s a classic math algorithm called the stable marriage problem that tackles the question: If all the girls rank their favorite boys in order, and all the boys rank their favorite girls in order, is there a way to pair everyone off so that no two people would be happier together than with their assigned partners? In a hypothetical 1800s world, where a couple was considered to be a man and a woman, the answer was yes. “But fast-forward to 2019, and we’ve got gender fluidity and are past the realm of heteronormativity,” Bohl says. “Things get complicated fast when you start introducing all of today’s real-world variables into how people pair up with each other.” Raymond will explain whether math is still a viable matchmaker — or if we’ll need to keep swiping.
Math and the Movies 10:15-11 a.m.; 12:45-1:30 p.m.
You know those wow-worthy effects in animated movies, like the swirling snow in “Frozen” or the magical ocean in “Moana”? They’re the work of math wizards. “It’s basically, how do we replicate or simulate the real world via computers?” Bohl says, describing the scientific computing Joseph Teran does for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Teran, a professor of applied mathematics at UCLA, will explain why we need math to create realistic animations. He’ll share a snowy scene from “Frozen,” for example, that involves more than 7 million discrete particles (and also, presumably, clarify what exactly a discrete particle is).
Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place NW; Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m., free.