Monday, July 4, 2016

Illustrating Mathematics at ICERM

Last week it was my singular pleasure to be invited to a workshop on illustrating mathematics, an area that has been revolutionized by relatively recent innovations in 3D printing!
The conference was held in Providence, Rhode Island, at ICERM, a part of Brown. I flew into nearby Boston the previous Saturday, explored the city, caught up with friends, and acclimated to the new time zone. The following day I took the Amtrak to Providence, wandered through the town, and found my hotel.

By the time I booked my room, the conference hotel was full, so I was given a place at the Providence Biltmore. I was planning to couch surf, but it was part of the deal, so I had to deal with a 4 room suite. The kitchen seemed to lack mood lighting. Later, I found another 3 rooms and ordered some kitchen kit for cooking. They delivered about 6 saucepans, but had to go back for cutlery. Lucky I didn't ask for plates!

The next day I went and checked in. Surrounded by lots of unfamiliar people from unfamiliar places and all of them topologists of one form or another. I hadn't really done hardcore (sort of) algebra since undergrad days, so it took some getting used to. That afternoon I mapped a Rubik's cube, though, so I was back in the game.

There was an adjoining room full of everyone's 3D printed creations. Some people printed hinges, hyperbolic surfaces of every kind, non-orientable surfaces, and organic-looking surfaces. Some people had knitted non-trivial topologies, which was an interesting exercise in patching. My fiance C knew (only) 5 (of the 50ish) participants so I had fun meeting more people. One of them, F, had a successful kickstarter to buy a $100,000 knitting machine, with which she makes the most outrageous knitted stuff. My favourite was the cellular automata - networks governed by simple rules which can, in some special cases, do computation!

One evening, A and I were walking the streets of Providence looking for restaurants and we found Big Nazo labs, a creature/performance shop, full of all kinds of monster puppet type things! Quite strange but an interesting counterpoint to the day's adventures in pure mathematical thought. We also had an opportunity to visit the bio lab of RISD - the Rhode Island School of Design, which had an incredible collection of interesting forms used as inspiration for the architects etc in training there.

F, D and I explored the John Brown house, a museum on the site of one of the grandest mansions of the colonial/independence time period in providence, which had a great audio tour and all kinds of interesting stuff in there. The Brown family was, for the vast majority of the time, involved in the "Indian Trade", which is a euphemism for dealing in people - slavery. We thought it was interesting how the audio tour took its time to get to that aspect of the story, but when it did it went into some detail.

I live tweeted much of the workshop, never missing an opportunity to drop some terrible puns! On Thursday the non-speaking members of the conference were given an opportunity to speak for 4 minutes each. So I decided to focus on just one thing and do it well. I talked about the mathematics of music (1.5^12=2^7, roughly) and how you could encode single step transitions between chords into a biperiodic map, which can be printed on the surface of a torus, which I made into a ring. Amusingly, it was at about this point that Shapeways gave up on printing my often extremely finicky models and I had to switch to i.Materialise, something the audience found quite funny!

On Friday, I infiltrated the physics department at Brown, as part of a strategic job investigation strategy. Well, I made it to the foyer of the right building. On summer break it was pretty empty. I saw a fellow walking over and, not having any idea which department or type he was, asked where the physics grad students hang out. I took some pains to emphasize that I wasn't a crazy person, and it turned out to be one of the professors of the physics department, Savvas Koushiappas, who generously answered all my questions for about 20 minutes, at which point one of his recent doctors dropped by to hand over an autographed thesis copy. Savvas told me a bit about how Cooper, of superconductor and semiconductor theory fame, was at Brown, whose physics department dates from about the time of the inverse square law. Fascinating!

Friday afternoon the conference ended, we all anti-diffused back to our respective homes, and I to my hotel. The following morning I checked out and trained back to Boston, where I met yet more friends - this time a bunch of fellow expats, spoke my native tongue, and eventually wound up at the Boston Science Museum, where I spent a pleasant afternoon looking at frogs, spiders, and model ships. There's also some really cool Tesla coils there.

From there I walked to South Station, got to the airport, worked, ate, boarded a plane, and set off for home. The flight back was notable only for containing about 95% of the most antisocial fellow passengers I've ever encountered. I couldn't quite believe the extent to which about 20 passengers somehow managed to get up during take off, "crutch" off every seat as they constantly traipsed back and forth to the bathroom, took up space, time, made their discomfort everyone else's problem, and even shook the seats of sleeping (and previously screamy) children, even when asked specifically not to. The one next to me waited 4 hours until I fell asleep to wake me up to go to the bathroom, pissing off the flight attendant, waking up a sleeping family, and then doing it all again on his way back 10 minutes later. I couldn't wait to jump into LA traffic! How do we create a cultural meme of not being terrible at air travel, and enforce it? It would be 100x more pleasant for everyone if people just followed some basic guidelines, summed up by "be mindful about not being a selfish jerk". I wrote a script that performed surface minimization, then realized that what I really wanted was curvature minimization. Whoops! I will have to normalize by volume.

Fortunately I was back home safe and sound by about 1:20am, unpacked and asleep shortly thereafter! I never had any idea that my little hobby work with 3D printing work would ever lead to anything quite this exciting. But, overall, it's led to quite a lot of interesting stuff, including this incredible opportunity to meet and collaborate with so many amazing people! So my advice is to follow your interests and see where they end up!

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