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Crunching numbers

Math Society gains momentum

Attendance at events sponsored by the fledgling Math Society is on the rise at Dartmouth, and the energy of Jonathan Huang '06 is at the root of the phenomenon. Assistant Professors of Mathematics Vladimir Chernov and Rosa Orellana, both advisors to the club, marvel at each event where there's a room full of people interested in this often specialized topic, and they thank Huang's leadership for luring people in.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Vladimir Chernov, Jonathan A. Huang '06, and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Rosa Orellana
Assistant Professor of Mathematics Vladimir Chernov, Jonathan A. Huang '06, and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Rosa Orellana. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"Jonathan is an amazing organizer," says Chernov. "He creates clever posters. He's found a nice way to combine the research and problem-solving aspects of math with a social component that makes the meetings fun, interesting and accessible."

The Dartmouth Math Club preceded the current Math Society, which was officially recognized by Dartmouth's Council on Student Organizations (COSO) last fall. About three years ago, Jennifer Carlson '04, Rajiv Menjoge '05, Alexei Pytel '05 and other students involved in this earlier club, launched a math-themed lecture program, and Huang has rejuvenated it by introducing "Talks in Math and Pizza." With funding from both the Mathematics Department and COSO, the group can provide snacks for the attendees. Huang, Chernov and Orellana all agree that free food often draws a crowd, but it's the guest speakers that make the events compelling.

"My favorite lecture so far was definitely the one given by my friend Hunter Brooks '06," says Huang, who is a mathematics and physics double major from Princeton, N.J. "I asked Hunter to present a survey about a research project he had conducted. Not only did his talk connect to the previous one about Catalan numbers, but I found out that Hunter is a brilliant speaker. It was nice to see the Math Society bring out this side of Hunter I have never seen before."

Huang became interested in the Math Society simply because he wanted to gather with friends to explore the topics in math that were particularly interesting and exciting to them. It caught on, and the Math Society now has a solid member base and regularly attracts many people to its programs. The end result, Huang says, is to encourage participation in math.

"In today's society, there's an impression that either you can do math or you can't, and that math is extremely difficult to understand and impossible to explain. Almost every movie about math presents this image, and I feel like it can be very intimidating, to the point where math majors at Dartmouth are afraid of taking the courses that seem too challenging. The Math Society tries to dispel this negative impression by getting people involved."

Another Mathematics Department program involves fielding an annual team to participate in the William Lowell Putnam Competition, an exam taken by U.S. and Canadian students sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America. Many students (most are members of the Math Society) prepare each year to take this test, which is named for a Harvard alumnus who believed in intellectual intercollegiate competition. More than 3,000 students from nearly 500 institutions take the annual Putnam exam. Chernov, who coaches the Dartmouth team, explains that anywhere from six to twenty Dartmouth students participate in the competition each year, with more joining the team all the time. Chernov is proud of his team of undergraduates because they compete against students from large universities who specialize early in a mathematics course of study. First year students also have the opportunity to take Dartmouth's Thayer Exam in Mathematics, run by the Math Department, which is good practice for the national Putnam Competition.

"It is very gratifying when students want to pursue and study math that's outside their normal coursework, either by going to Math Society events or by studying for the Putnam," says Chernov. "It's wonderful to see students excited by math."

Huang echoes that sentiment. "For me, what makes the Math Society fun is seeing people participate and get involved in math. My greatest reward is when students decide to take a course in a particular topic after attending a particular talk, or connect what they've seen at a talk to the material they're covering in their courses."

By SUSAN KNAPP

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08