Moody Lecture Part Math, Part Performance

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We do it every day and don’t think of it as mathematics.

From arranging songs in our playlists to juggling appointments in our calendars, we count and combine, attempting arrangements that satisfy specific criteria. For example, we may ask ourselves, “How many different ways can I arrange a 40-hour work week if I have 35 hourlong tasks to complete?”

Determining all the possible arrangements employs combinatorics, a branch of mathematics that addresses the selection, arrangement and combination of objects from a finite set.

On Friday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m., Harvey Mudd College will offer a playful glimpse into the world of combinatorics through a presentation by math Professor Jennifer Quinn from the University of Washington, Tacoma (UWT).

Free and open to the public, “Mathematics to DIE for: The Battle Between Counting and Matching” is the first of two talks this year in the Michael E. Moody Lecture Series, which illuminates the joy, wonder and applicability of mathematics.

Described as “one part performance art and three parts combinatorics,” Quinn’s talk will feature a math contest between the two methods—with counting and matching represented by cartoon avatars. The audience will judge the competing techniques’ performances and crown their champion.

“Few people think of themselves as mathematicians, yet everyone can count and match,” said Quinn. “Asking people to judge mathematical beauty, by whatever standards they deem appropriate, changes their perspective from passive observer to critical user. My hope is that these surprisingly powerful tools might inspire new mathematical competitors.”

Quinn earned her bachelor’s degree from Williams College, her master’s from the University of Illinois at Chicago and her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. Prior to UWT, she taught mathematics and chaired the mathematics department at Occidental College. She has held many national leadership positions, including executive director for the Association for Women in Mathematics and co-editor of Math Horizons, and currently serves as second vice president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). She received the MAA Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching in 2007 and the MAA 2006 Beckenbach Book award for Proofs That Really Count: The Art of Combinatorial Proof, co-authored with Harvey Mudd math Professor Art Benjamin.

The Moody lectureship was established by the Harvey Mudd Mathematics Department in honor of Professor Michael Moody, who served as the department chair from 1996 to 2002. Under Moody’s leadership, the department revised its curriculum, rejuvenated the senior-thesis program and tripled the number of math majors. He was also a guiding force that led to the department’s receipt of the American Mathematical Society’s inaugural award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department in 2006. Moody passed away in January 2010, and later that year was posthumously named an Honorary Alumnus of Harvey Mudd College.