Behind the scenes with math editor Vickie Kearn at the Joint Mathematics Meetings

Never been to the Joint Mathematics Meetings, you say? I have no idea why not. I look forward to it all year. It is a wonderful opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones, hear great talks about new mathematical results, and learn new ways to engage your students. Oh yes, it is also a whole lot of fun!

Every January, the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America host the Joint Mathematics Meetings. This year they were also joined by the Association for Symbolic Logic, the Association for Women in Mathematics, the National Association for Mathematicians, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. This year more than 6000 mathematicians gathered in New Orleans. This mini mathematical travelogue will give you an idea of what we did for five days.

The exhibit hall opens promptly at noon on the first day of the meeting. There are usually about 200 people waiting to get in and there is actually a ribbon cutting ceremony. This year the first lucky entrants received a Go Math foamy finger.

Any company that publishes math books, hires mathematicians, or markets math games has an exhibit at this meeting. There is also the occasional oddity such as jewelry, ties, and my favorite—Happy Feet, a place where you can get a foot massage. The exhibit hall is the social center of the conference. That is where you can get meet your friends, get some coffee or sweets and every now and then a glass of champagne to celebrate the publication of a great new book. I love walking around the hall looking at all the new books. It is a terrific potpourri of monographs, textbooks, and books for general readers. Each exhibitor tries to top the next by giving away a toy that contains their logo and web address. Some of my favorites include the NSA laundry bags and juggling balls. I also picked up a wonderful Einstein stress reliever. The NSA booth was right across from Princeton and we spent a lot of time playing with the Enigma machine. This drew a lot of attention.

One of the most exciting exhibits was the Museum of Mathematics (http://momath.org/), which will be opening in New York City in the spring of 2012. This is a major event in mathematics and MoMath had many events going on during the week. George Hart, MoMath’s Chief of Content (and mathematical sculptor) had us try our hand at re-assembling some twisty and tricky puzzles. And Art Benjamin, Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College showed us some pretty amazing mental math.

This video shows Art Benjamin multiplying two five digit numbers in his head. If you want to learn how to do this, take a look at this amazing book, Secrets of Mental Math.

One demonstration that I missed but have seen many times is Tim Chartier and his math mime. Don’t worry, however, I am writing a blog article on Tim in a forthcoming edition.

There were many great math T-shirts, puzzles and toys you could purchase. My two personal favorites were this great MoMath T-shirt and the Tetraxis—a totally addictive toy for all ages. A must see is the math art exhibit. This is a juried art show and the pieces are truly spectacular. They can be in any media. The entries included sculptures, crochet, photographs, paintings, and my favorite—a short story written on a Möbius strip—Loopy Love by Barry Cipra. This is a story that has no beginning and no end.

Just so you don’t think I played the entire week, I did attend some excellent talks and educational sessions. Yuval Peres talked about Laplacian growth and the mystery of the abelian sandpile and Bill Cook talked about the traveling salesman problem. Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner chaired a panel discussion on mathematical culture and life. There were also 2294 other talks. In a future blog, I will give you more detail about the three talks mentioned above as these were all given by Princeton authors and there are forthcoming books on each of these topics.

One of the highlights of the meeting is the awards ceremony. The winners are not announced until the meeting so the presentation is usually a standing room only event. I am very proud to say that Princeton University Press authors were well represented. Timothy Gowers received the Euler Book Prize for The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. This prize is given to the author of an outstanding book about mathematics that has had or shows promise of having a positive impact on the public’s view of mathematics. John Milnor received the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement for his influence on mathematics in general, through his work and his excellent books. To see a complete list of his publications with Princeton University Press go to http://press.princeton.edu/. Ingrid Daubechies, who served for five years on the Princeton University Press editorial board, received the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research. Although not a Princeton production, I thought that you might be interested to know that the TV series Numb3rs received the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award. This award was established in 1988 to reward and encourage communicators who, on a sustained basis, bring mathematical ideas and information to nonmathematical audiences. Congratulations to all of the award recipients!

I did spend some time at the Princeton University Press exhibit talking with prospective authors and answering questions about our books and which text might be appropriate for a particular course. This is a wonderful opportunity to get feedback about our books and what we might publish in the future. Publishing a book is a thrilling procedure. You start with an idea and go through many drafts, title and cover ideas, and in the end you have a wonderful treasure that will inspire many generations. One of my favorite events at the Joint Mathematics Meeting is when we do a book signing. This year Reuben Hersh and Vera John Steiner signed copies of Loving and Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life.

I will leave you with them and the suggestion that you might want to make reservations for the January 2012 meeting in Boston. See you there!