August 16, 2015

Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects

By Jason Saied ’16

Brandon Strickland ridies MoMath's tricycle with square wheels.

Brandon Strickland ridies MoMath’s tricycle with square wheels.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects (MOVES) conference in Manhattan, a biennial conference focused around the mathematical study of puzzles and games. The conference, which was organized by the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath), was held in honor of Elwyn R. Berlekamp, John H. Conway, and Richard K. Guy, the trio that wrote the celebrated Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays, a foundational work in the field of combinatorial game theory.

Students and adults pull on ropes in an interactive mathematics exhibit

On the first night, I was given the opportunity to play with a lot of fascinating interactive exhibits in the museum: I rode a tricycle with square wheels, tried to tile a table according to the famous Penrose tiling, and saw myself transformed into a human fractal. One exhibit which drew a lot of attention (so much that I didn’t actually get to try it out) was called Motionscape, and seemed to be a cousin of Guitar Hero, where players would try to match physical quantities (position, velocity, and acceleration) instead of musical notes. Intervals of real numbers between -4 and 4 would move across a screen, represented by two arrows; when the arrows passed through a certain line, the player had to move so that his or her position (or velocity or acceleration, depending on the current game mode) in SI units was a number in that interval.

In addition to letting us explore the museum, MoMath gave each attendee a bag filled with merchandise from their store, such as build-it-yourself models of three-dimensional geometric objects and a puzzle game called IQ Link that I’ve spent way too much time thinking about since then.

Michael Shulman ’16 points at a screen while giving his mathematics presentation

Michael Shulman ’16

Of course, the real reason I was there was for the talks, many of which were given by rather well-known mathematicians, and all of which were both interesting and entertaining. Conway and Guy gave keynote talks at the beginning of the conference about some of their new research on the geometry of triangles. Berlekamp gave the closing keynote, discussing the mathematics behind a game called Amazons. (Public service announcement: there is an iPhone app which allows you to play this game, and I highly recommend it.) Out of the other talks, I particularly enjoyed Tim Hsu’s work on a generalization of the popular game Chomp, and Peter Winkler’s discussion of some puzzling open problems in the world of combinatorial games.

Blogger Jason Saied and fellow Lafayette mat students Josh Arfin and Dantong Zhu with John Conway.

Josh Arfin, Dantong Zhu and I (middle back) with John Conway.

Part of what made the conference so fun was the high level of support and participation from Lafayette faculty and students. Professor Ethan Berkove gave a talk with his students Andrew Eickemeyer ’17 and Michael Shulman ’16 about their work on a problem known as the Colored Cubes Puzzle; Professor Gary Gordon presented some of his research with Professor Liz McMahon on the card game SET; and Professor Derek Smith and his students Josh Arfin ’17, Jon Bakken ’16, and Brandon Strickland ’16 (with some participation from myself and Dantong Zhu ’16) spoke about their research on a variant of a well-known puzzle about logical pirates splitting up a treasure. Even Brian Kronenthal ’07, a Lafayette alumnus who is now a professor of mathematics at Kutztown University, was there to lead an activity for MOVES participants. All of the Lafayette students who attended the conference were part of Derek Smith’s Combinatorial Game Theory course in the previous semester. Although not every student in the course attended the conference, they were all involved in the work on the pirate puzzle in some way.

Prof. Derek Smith and his students, holding pirate swords and smiling

Prof. Derek Smith and his students channel their inner pirates.

Overall, I can say that MOVES was a great experience, and I am glad that I had the rest of summer to think about the puzzles and games to which I was introduced at the conference. I definitely plan to attend MOVES 2017, and will surely return to the museum before that. More information about MoMath can be found here: http://momath.org/

Professor Derek Smith talks with his students while seated at a table

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