Dada Math

Math departments are full of smart people.  But with the demands (and joys) of research and teaching (and of our personal lives), most people in math departments do not talk to each other about math nearly enough.  Certainly that is true at Williams.  We do have a fairly vibrant math community here.  There are talks all the time.  But like most other departments, at talks there is rarely a sense of mathematical play.

That is why in the last few years  we have been experimenting with Dada Math.  We sit around our conference table with a small bowl filled with slips of paper, each containing numbers and letters corresponding a classification in Math Reviews, like 58B32 (which is the Geometry of Quantum Groups). We then pull out three slips of paper and write down on the board what are the topics.

We are now ready to do Dada math.  We spend ten to fifteen minutes brainstorming possible questions that link all three topics.  Since we all have drastically different backgrounds, everyone has things to say.  Luckily we are all comfortable enough with each other that each of us doesn’t mind (too much) saying things that are silly and even more so admitting when we have no clue about a topic.  In fact, I remember once when a topic came up (which in a public blog will remain nameless) that all of us should have known about (especially me, if I am honest) but which none did. We barreled on ahead.

There was another time when “reverse mathematics” came up.  None of us had heard of it.  Susan Loepp suggested that reverse mathematics is when you are trying to prove a theorem while simultaneously backing up and going, “Beep, beep, beep.”  Sounds reasonable, but we were fairly sure it had a more technical meaning.  While none of us knew about reverse mathematics, almost all of us googled it in the next few days.

The success so far has been mixed.  I think we all have a good time.  My dream if not fantasy would be for an honest paper to come out of Dada math.  This has not yet happened.  We have come up with at least one conjecture that afterwards we quickly learned was already known.  Also, beer has been involved in the last few Dada events, leading to more fun but less substance.  Still, I think the basic idea is sound and would love other departments or friends to try it out.