Non-Trivial Pursuits

December 26, 2004


Using the dance vocabulary invented by Sommer Gentry, subjects can interact better with the PHANToM robot, the personal haptic interaction device she's shown with here. Photos by Dorry Segev.

Dana Mackenzie

Twenty-five years ago, the first lesson I absorbed in graduate school---before I learned anything about geometry or class field theory---was the graduate student ethos: Thou shalt not have a life! I am not sure whether someone told me this explicitly, or whether it was my own panicky reaction to the fact that every other graduate student seemed to know more than I did. Perhaps I took my cue from role models like Paul Erdös, who seemed to live a fascinating life, even without any interests outside mathematics. The message seemed clear: Mathematics is its own reward. If you're serious about it, you shouldn't want or need to spend your time on other pursuits.

And so I renounced my favorite hobbies---chess (which I had played from the age of seven) and folk dancing (which I had started in college). I buried myself in the study of all that was good and pure, and I emerged four years later with a doctorate and a serious case of burnout. After graduate school, I resolved never again to put mathematics ahead of life. An excellent decision, as it turned out: Within the next five years I won two state championships in chess and met my future wife at folk dancing. But I always wondered whether I was shortchanging my mathematical career.

Can a successful mathematician have an equally rewarding avocation outside math, without sacrificing either? The answer, of course, is yes. "I believe that a large majority of mathematicians have at least one interest outside of mathematics," says Donald Lewis, former chair of the mathematics department at the University of Michigan. "But frequently they hide it from their colleagues." All too often, the first public recognition of a mathematician's "other life" comes in his or her obituary.

In the belief that mathematicians deserve a little premortem recognition for their achievements outside the profession, I interviewed five people who have managed to balance their mathematics with substantive and rewarding avocations outside of math. These are their stories.

A Matter of Balance
In 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, a new dance craze took off in America, a high-energy swing dance that became known as the "Lindy hop." Seventy years later, the Lindy hop swept the country again, thanks in large part to a television commercial that showed young people bopping to the jazz tunes of the 1930s.

MIT graduate student Sommer Gentry has integrated her passion for swing dancing into her research in robotics. Now a fourth-year Computational Science Graduate Fellow, Gentry credits the "wonderful" DOE fellowship for requiring her to take courses not only in mathematics and computer science, but also in engineering. It was in a course called Space Biomechanical Engineering, she says, that she began the work on human biomechanical control that ultimately led to her thesis topic.

One of the people snared by the new/old fad was an applied mathematics student from Stanford University. "I went dancing literally every single night of the week, and days too on weekends," says Sommer Elizabeth Gentry, who is now a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Swing
dancing gave me such an amazing high that I couldn't get enough." In 1999 she met her future husband and dance partner, Dorry Segev, at the national Lindy hop competition. By 2001 they were already the fifth best couple in the U.S., and the next year they won the British championship.

Gentry's favorite step in the Lindy hop, and also one of the most basic, is a move called the swingout. "It's beautiful because there's a moment when you're rotating around your partner," she says. "If it's done right, neither of you can balance alone. If you let go, you would fly apart."

Not only has she kept up her dancing in graduate school, but she has brought it into her research. Inspired by the wordless communication used by dance partners---a slight gesture or hand movement from the leader conveys to his partner what he wants to do next---she has been programming a robot to communicate with humans the same way. "You could use a robot as a trainer to teach a surgeon what move to do next in surgery," she says. "Or you can use a surgical robot as a follower: It could recognize what motion the surgeon is trying to accomplish, and after that help him do it." The result, like a dance, would be a coordinated operation that neither leader nor follower could accomplish alone.

Gentry won a Best Student Paper award at an IEEE meeting last year for her human-robot experiments. Meanwhile, she continues to teach and compete in swing dancing, which she plans to participate in for the rest of her life. "I couldn't have quit swing dancing even if I were ordered to," she says. "I really feel that living in balance is what makes you strong enough to face the graduate student lows of self-criticism and self-doubt."

High-Flying Bird
Robert Vanderbei, an operations researcher at Princeton University, can remember exactly when he began his hobby. "I started the week after I took my oral [examinations] at Cornell," he says. "I was going to blow off the summer. I didn't plan to learn to fly, but I just saw an article in the student paper about soaring and thought it looked like fun."

Vanderbei eventually became half-owner of a sailplane and the chief instructor of the Central Jersey Soaring Club. He says that his favorite moment in a glider came one gorgeous autumn day when he fell in with a flock of migrating birds. "At that time of year you get good thermals," he says, and the birds use them to gain altitude. "There must have been 50 or 100 of them rising with me. I'm going a little faster than they are, maybe 50 miles an hour to their 45, and there's this hawk off my right wing tip. I'm slowly gaining on him, and I'm only twenty feet away when he suddenly realizes I'm behind him. He looks around and stares me right in the eye." Then the bird spooked and dove out of sight.

Unlike Gentry, Vanderbei gave up his hobby, mostly because fatherhood was keeping him at home on weekends. "I quit when it had been almost a year and I had only gone up twice. You either have to [soar] a lot or not at all, because it's dangerous if you're out of practice." He looked for a new interest that he could pursue at home, and found it in astrophotography. Now, instead of soaring with the hawks, he decorates his Web page with color pictures of (among others) the Eagle Nebula. What hasn't changed, he says, is the excitement and energy that his hobby brings to his life.

More than that, Vanderbei's new hobby has changed the direction of his career. He has used his mathematical expertise to write software for amateur astronomers, programming a computer to get the most information out of the intermittent stream of photons recorded by a charge-coupled device, or CCD. For the last two years, he has worked full-time on a stargazer's dream project: designing the software for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, a space telescope scheduled for launch in 2014, which will attempt to photograph planets in other solar systems.

"If you can take a color picture, you can determine the spectrum," Vanderbei says. "You can look for water and biomarkers, such as chlorophyll. Nobody has any idea what we might find." Perhaps, one day, Vanderbei will look through his telescope as he looked through the window of his sailplane-and find someone (or something) looking back.

In a Classical Vein
Noam Elkies, a number theorist and music composer at Harvard University, has lived a dual life since he was a child. At the age of three, he was already interested in numbers, and he became fascinated by piano when he saw the fingering numbers in a beginners' music book. He attended both Stuyvesant High School in New York and Juilliard Pre-College; double-majored in music and mathematics at Columbia University; and has written roughly the same number of mathematics papers and musical compositions (about 50 of each).

Noam Elkies has written roughly equal numbers of math papers and musical compositions. Photo by Laura Wulf/Harvard News Office.

Life did, however, force Elkies to make a choice, and he did so on thoroughly practical grounds. "I could try to make a living in music, but I would have to give up the math," he says. "Or I could continue as a mathematician and still continue in music at a high level." In his case, mathematics was a way to continue pursuing both interests. "I couldn't be productive as either a creative musician or mathematician if I tried to work at it 12 hours a day every day," he says.

One of Elkies's most recent compositions is Brandenburg Concerto No. 7---a piece written in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach's six Brandenburg concerti. "A Bach expert would not be fooled into attributing this piece to Bach," Elkies wrote in the program notes for the piece's premiere last year, at the New England Conservatory. "But this was not my intent. It was enough of a challenge to write a new composition that any Bach lover could experience with something like the adventure and joy that a newly discovered Bach concerto would elicit."

Elkies laments the fact that serious composers can no longer write in the style of the classical masters. "The only way people can get away with it is as a joke, like P.D.Q. Bach. But when we perform the classic pieces, we're really moved by them. Why can't we be moved by a new piece written in the same vein?" One of his long-term goals is to make music composed in a classical style respectable again. Meanwhile, in the short term, he says, "I just want to finish this darn string quartet I've been working on for several years!"

If I Could Walk with the Animals . . .
If you're looking for David Stegenga's Math Appreciation class at the University of Hawaii, it's pretty easy to tell when you've found the right place. It's the only class that starts every session with videos starring animals from the Honolulu Zoo . . . and Stegenga himself, a fifty-something man in a baseball cap, plays a supporting role in many of them. Stegenga started showing the videos as a way to get his 350-student class settled down at the beginning of the period. But, he says, "After reading the student reviews, I could see that it was one of their favorite parts of the class."

Stegenga, who works in complex analysis and wavelets in his "real" job, has volunteered at the zoo for six years, along with his wife, Bridgit. Last year, they donated roughly 1200 hours of their time to the zoo. Stegenga devotes about an hour a day to the zoo's Web page, which contains more than 600 media files and 300 fact pages. Visitors to the site have ranged from high-school classes in New York to zookeepers in Indonesia. He also serves on the board of the Honolulu Zoo Society, which runs all of the zoo's educational programs, and participates every summer in a national fundraising event called "Bowling for Rhinos."

A novel take on community service: University of Hawaii mathematics professor David Stegenga tends to Squirt the giraffe at the Honolulu Zoo.

The lion's share of Stegenga's time may go to the Web page, but the rhino's share comes on Sunday mornings. That is when he and Bridgit spend four hours cleaning stalls and feeding the animals. There's no doubt who their favorite customer is. That would be the 5000-pound white rhino, Kruger. "He'll come over like a puppy dog," Stegenga says. "The big problem we have with him is jealousy. He wants to have 100 percent of our attention. When the zebras come over, angling for a little treat, he'll kind of shake his head at them and they'll run off." Another favorite is Squirt, a cuddly, 15-foot-tall "lap giraffe" whom Stegenga fed as a baby.

Recently, a television crew showed up unannounced at the Stegengas' front door to film them for a local cable program called "Heroes." Although it wasn't quite the Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes, the host of the show awarded them a free weekend at a resort hotel in recognition of their service at the zoo. And they got their proverbial 15 minutes of fame (conveniently, that was the length of the feature). Fortunately, no one at the university seems resentful. "This kind of activity is viewed positively by my colleagues as an important community service," Stegenga says.

Thanks for the Memories
Creativity, like a river, does not always follow a single course. Sometimes it runs in parallel streams, as it has for Elkies; sometimes it deserts one channel completely and jumps to another. That was the experience of Mary-Catherine Kropinski, a fluid dynamicist at Simon Fraser University, who admits to being a bit of a heretic. Right now, she says, "In the battle between the two, my job or my hobby, my hobby wins."

Three years ago, Kropinski gave birth to her second child, and while on maternity leave decided to put together a scrapbook to commemorate his first year. "It quickly spiraled into something else," she says. Unwittingly, Kropinski had stumbled into the fastest-growing hobby in North America. (According to the Craft & Hobby Association, there are 25 million scrapbookers in the U.S., and they bought $2.5 billion of supplies in 2003---a 70 percent increase in two years.)

Scrapbooking soon grew into a passion for Kropinski. She makes as many as 100 pages or "layouts" a year, using photographs, high-quality cardstock, patterned paper, beads, ribbons, and whatever else comes to hand. The subjects of her scrapbook pages are everyday events---Remembrance Day, her daughter's haircut. "My favorite layouts are the ones where I've managed to capture those poignant moments---in words or photos---that make us pause and reflect why we are moved," she says.

Already, Kropinski has garnered an honorable mention in the industry's most prestigious contest, the Creating Keepsakes "Hall of Fame," and her layouts have been published in eight magazines and books. She also enjoys interacting with other scrapbookers: "We are constantly pushing the boundaries of how to create and design layouts. Getting published is a very competitive business, and there are a lot of driven scrapbookers."

Meanwhile, mathematics has definitely taken a back seat; she says she needs "time to reevaluate and regroup." When she does get started on research again, she may move into a field with closer ties to her hobby, such as image processing. "I have become very interested in photography, typography, graphic design, and modern art," she says. "I have responded to my interest in my typical nerdish fashion---I've done a fair amount of research in these areas and would love to take some formal training."

For every academic who makes a major commitment to an avocation as well as a career, there are risks: promotions or tenure that might be missed, recognition that might come late or not at all. Even so, the choice to serve two different muses may be commoner than you think . . . and the mathematician next door might just have a whole different life that you never suspected.

Dana Mackenzie writes from Santa Cruz, California.


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