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Atlanta, GA | Posted:
April 18, 2016 *

I am fascinated by analogies. Much of my work involves so-called "p-adic" numbers, which are analogous to real numbers like 2 or π, but with important differences. For example, in p-adic geometry, every triangle is isosceles! This world might sound exotic and useless, but p-adic numbers play an important role in modern life, including cryptography, which is the making and breaking of secret codes.

A lot of things in mathematics appear to have no applications, but in fact, down the road, they turn out to be incredibly useful.

In 2006, Georgia Tech postdoc Sergey Norin found a clever solution to a problem one of my undergraduate research students had been working on. Building on Norin's solution, he and I soon proved a Riemann-Roch theorem for graphs. This theorem is another mathematical analogy, between graphs, which you can imagine as being like websites and the hyperlinks between them, and "Riemann surfaces," which are classic geometric objects from the 19th century.

The Riemann-Roch theorem is used widely, from error-correcting codes to string theory. Norin and I were the first mathematicians to realize that it has an avatar in the world of graphs. The resulting paper is now my most cited work.

In middle and high school, I loved reading recreational math books by Martin Gardner. Many mathematicians of my generation got interested in the subject from his writings. A conference called Gathering for Gardner takes place every two years in Atlanta.

During my senior year in high school, my first-ever mathematics research project placed third place in the 1990 International Science and Engineering Fair. The project helped get me a full scholarship to the University of Maryland, College Park, where my professors encouraged me to pursue mathematics as a career.

Although I wanted to be a math major, for a while I considered double majoring in physics, history of science, or poetry. I decided to focus on math. It was actually difficult for me to make the transition from being a "polymath" to a "mathematician."

Master the fundamentals. You have to be able to understand and write rigorous proofs to be a mathematician, and it takes a lot of discipline to do this. Expose yourself to different kinds of mathematics, and try to get some research experience as an undergraduate.

I'd be a professional magician. I've been interested in magic my whole life, but I never seriously considered doing it as a full-time job. I doubt I'd be good at the business end of it.

I love the fact that the overwhelming majority of students are not only really good at math, but they appreciate its value for whatever they're studying. Students want to be in my class to learn, rather than attending only because it's a requirement. That's a great position to be in as a professor. When students want to learn from me, I'm much more motivated to give them something really valuable.

I'm surprised that those who are so good at mathematics resist the temptation to major in it. Seriously, math just literally sucked me in -- I was so fascinated by its elegance and mystery.

My colleagues know about the magic. They may not know that I sang in a highly regarded a cappella group in the University of Maryland, College Park; or that in 1990 I won a national poetry contest sponsored by the National Holocaust Foundation; or that in 1995 I was a contestant on Jeopardy! I came in second, but the guy who beat me went on to win the Tournament of Champions that year.

Hmm, I'm not sure what you're talking about.

Seriously, most of my downtime now I spend with our 6-week-old baby. That's not always relaxing, but it's what I want to do when I'm not working. It's great for taking my mind off work.

I'd like to visit southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand). I love the food, and I admire the politeness and respect for tradition in their culture. I'd also like to see Iguazu Falls, on the border between Brazil and Argentina, and Victoria Falls, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. I'd explore the Amazon as well, but I hate mosquitoes. And I'm afraid of crocodiles.

Put it toward my kids' college education. I'd also buy my wife some really nice jewelry, as a gesture of thanks for reviewing my responses to these questions.

Note: the image above was taken in June 2015, when Matt Baker brought his "Mathemagical Mystery Tour" to more than 100 members of the Atlanta Science Tavern in Manuel's Tavern.