EXTERNAL NEWS - Matt Baker on Cover of Math Horizons (MAA)

February 15, 2023 | Atlanta, GA

Matt Baker appears on the cover of the MAA publication Math Horizons, and is featured in an article "On Magic and Math - A Conversation with Matt Baker".

See this link for the article: https://maa.tandfonline.com/journals/umho20


Excerpts from the article:


MH. Is it true that every number theorist loves quadratic reciprocity? Is it required to get a PhD in number theory?

MB. I feel like that’s an informal, if not a formal, requirement. During my oral exam at Berkeley, Ken Ribet asked me what my favorite proof of quadratic reciprocity was. At that time, I didn’t have an original proof, so I just told him my favorite one that existed; that’s the kind of question you actually get as a student in number theory. But my favorite now is my card-dealing proof. There’s something unusual about being able to explain basically the whole proof in terms of dealing cards that fits me particularly well; it’s kind of uniquely branded to me.


MH Have you ever used magic to inspire math research?

MB. Glenn Stevens asked me to mentor students in the PROMYS program. One group explored a magic trick I had recently devised. The idea was that you have a stack of cards in some order, and with as few questions as possible, you want to get enough information so that you can determine what cards people have. Diaconis and Graham have a well-known trick like this using de Bruijn sequences. The students proved a nice theorem—they characterized when you have a special generalized de Bruijn sequence. As far as we can tell, it’s a new theorem, which I found surprising.


MH. Do you have advice for aspiring mathematicians, magicians, or anyone trying to pursue their passions?

MB. It’s fine to just do something because you love it. But the older I get, the more I care about the impact that I can have. So I think you should spend your precious time not just on something you enjoy, but also on things that you can share with others to bring them enjoyment. The time I spend thinking about magic eventually pays off in that way. The same goes for my math work. I could spend my time trying to prove a theorem and write a paper about it, and if it’s a really good result, that might be the best use of my time. But right now, I actually find that stuff I can share with people (like with my blog or integration of recreational math ideas) is probably going to have a bigger impact than a technical paper that gets read by a handful of mathematicians. I’ve learned to give myself permission to be playful, and I encourage others to do the same.

Finally, you can’t just learn everything about math and use all of it. You have to be a little more focused. My advice is to strive to become interested in at least a couple things that are seemingly unrelated and perhaps become quite good at one of those things. Then really try to push the connections a bit because it’s just way more likely that you’ll make a breakthrough that way.