Knot happening

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While the success of the Big Bang Theory has proven that “geek comedy” is funny, it’s not easy to find live performances in this admittedly specialized genre. During this year’s “UnKnot” conference, an undergraduate conference focused on knot theory—the study of mathematical knots—the Mobiusbandaid Theatre Company presented four comic readings that brought the house down.

Mathematical knots are three-dimensional closed loops–like the letter “O”–but often twisted and tangled like a plate of spaghetti. The real-world applications of knot theory range from molecular sciences, such as DNA, to statistical mechanics, including thermodynamics.

The night of theater began with a new chapter in the adventures of the well-known fictional cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. In a production titled “Silence of the Lemmas,” (Lemmas, also known as theorems, are proven statements typically used as a stepping stone to a larger result), the stage is set with “Dr. Lecture” sequestered in a mathematical prison, as Clarisse sits across a table from him during an interview.

Just as in the familiar film, Clarisse wants Lecture to help her solve a mystery, and in exchange for his help, Lecture requires a personal story from Clarisse. When Clarisse confesses to suffering through an algebra class, Lecture hisses “So, what is 2⁸ power? You don’t know? Do you have a touch of math anxiety perhaps, Clarisse?” Bazinga!

The short play was full of mathematical jokes and groaners were written (and also performed at times) by Colin Adams, a professor of mathematics at Williams College. Adams co-hosted the conference with Lew Ludwig, associate professor of mathematics here at Denison.

Ludwig thinks it’s important for undergraduate math majors and aficionados to attend conferences both to expand their knowledge of mathematics and to network with their peers. And this year’s conference also gave many undergraduates the opportunity to present their own findings to a knowledgeable cohort.

“Knot theory has far reaching applications in areas such as genomics and quantum mechanics,” says Ludwig. “This conference is unique in that it brings undergraduates, graduate students, undergraduate faculty, and research mathematicians together. The sweep of players in the field is phenomenal. It’s unusual for undergraduate students to have the opportunity to share their original findings with leaders in the field.”

We’ll leave you with one last mathematical pun. “Never argue with a 90 degree triangle; it’s always right.”

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