Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How culture shaped a mathematician

"I like to connect abstract math with things that are really concrete," says Skip Garibaldi. Photo by Bryan Meltz.

By Carol Clark

As a graduate student, Emory math professor Skip Garibaldi visited the Orangerie Museum near Paris. He and a friend, a fellow mathematician, were transfixed upon entering one of the museum’s galleries. But it wasn’t the stunning mural of Claude Monet water lilies that grabbed their attention.

“I said, ‘It’s a whispering chamber!’ And we immediately ran to opposite ends of this oval room and began having a conversation,” Garibaldi recalls.

No plaque identified the whispering phenomenon. But the mathematicians recognized the geometry of ellipses that allow sound waves to travel around walls without getting much quieter.

Here’s what a non-mathematician would probably first notice upon entering the Monet gallery:

Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Here’s a diagram of what caught Garibaldi's attention:

Now Garibaldi is himself part of a museum exhibit that opened this month at the Smithsonian Institution. “MathAlive!” aims to reveal the beauty of math to middle and elementary school students, by showing it through the eyes of hip young engineers, designers, urban planners, athletes and others who use math in their work and play.

“A lot of good things are going on right now to help get kids interested in math,” Garibaldi says, from the Khan Academy phenomenon to the Museum of Mathematics opening this week in New York. “That’s great, because technology is integrated into everything we do today, and if you want any kind of career in technology, engineering or science, math is the gateway.”

The interactive MathAlive! exhibit combines math with virtual reality to let visitors do things like design a skateboard, and then test it out to see how it works, or operate a robotic rover to pick up samples from the surface of Mars.

Garibaldi, who is an avid rock climber, inspired an actual climbing wall at the exhibit.

Watch a "fly-through" of MathAlive! in the video below. The traveling exhibit is a collaboration of the Raytheon Company, NASA, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and others. In addition to the Smithsonian, MathAlive! will travel to the Arizona Museum and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The philosophy behind MathAlive! is that one way to get kids interested in a subject is to find a way to make it fun and cool.

Popular books and movies guided his own meandering trail through academia, says Garibaldi, who grew up in semi-rural Fairfield, California, on the edge of the Central Valley.

Garibaldi became fascinated by physics after an uncle gave him a copy of “The Cosmic Code” by Heinz Pagels, a physicist and mountain climber who had a gift for explaining complex topics in ways that were both gripping and easy to understand.

Here’s how Pagels wrote about cosmology in the 1982 book:

“Lately I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it would not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss ... what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed ... It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness.”

Credit: EE One/Wikipedia Commons.

Pagels was a larger-than-life figure who embodied what he wrote. In 1988, he died while climbing Colorado’s Pyramid Peak (above), in an accident that was eerily similar to his dream.

Another book that influenced Garibaldi was “Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: The Adventures of a Curious Character.” This classic memoir by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman covers everything from safecracking to meeting Albert Einstein.

“It’s got real science in it, but it’s also fun,” Garibaldi says. “If you’re a geeky kid and you read that book, it would be really hard not to have Feynman as a hero.”

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Garibaldi had taken most of the math and science courses offered in the vicinity of his small town. So he decided to skip the rest of high school and apply to college. He enrolled at Purdue.

“Looking back on it, it seems like a crazy idea,” Garibaldi says, “but it didn’t seem strange at the time.” He explains that he had recently seen the movie “Real Genius,” starring Val Kilmer as one of the youngest students ever accepted to study physics at CalTech, where he and a roommate develop a high-powered laser.

Although he enjoyed the theoretical aspects of physics, Garibaldi says he didn’t like working in a lab. He switched his major to computer science in his junior year at Purdue, but once again hit a wall.

“I had spent a lot of time programming, going back to 7th grade, and I was getting tired of being in front of a computer screen under fluorescent lights,” he says. “I just don’t like being encased in a room.”

Garibaldi went on to a PhD program for math at the University of California at San Diego. “One advantage of math is you can do it yourself, anywhere, even at the beach,” Garibaldi says. “All you need is a pencil and paper, or sometimes, not even that.”

As he immersed himself in becoming a theoretical mathematician, he discovered a twin passion: Rock climbing.

Garibaldi climbing Desert Reality in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas. Photo by Craig Clarence.

Precision is key to both scaling a mountain safely and finding the solution hidden in a maze of equations, he says. “They both involve puzzle solving. And they both require close attention. You tune out everything else. You get taken away from the every day.”

While in San Diego, and later during a post-doctoral position at UCLA, Garibaldi continued to hone his climbing skills. “When you’re climbing you have a lot of adrenaline and focus, and that affects what you remember,” he says. “I did hundreds of climbs in Joshua Tree National Park, and my memories of each one of them are intense because of the focus that I had while doing them.”

Garibaldi met his wife, Julia, a fellow mathematician, while at UCLA, and the couple moved to Atlanta in 2002 when he joined the Emory faculty. The math department was seeing a rise in enrollment, which Garibaldi thinks may have been at least partly due to more appearances of math in popular culture, like the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” Russell Crowe (left) played real-life mathematician John Nash in the hit movie, which won the 2002 Oscar for best picture.

As a theoretical mathematician, Garibaldi grapples with esoteric subjects, like cohomological invariants and an enigmatic structure known as E8. But he also strives to help non-mathematicians see the world of numbers as he does. He wrote a paper called “Finding Good Bets in the Lottery – And Why You Shouldn’t Take Them” and a computer program that allows people to rearrange the stars in the U.S. flag. He also starred in a popular YouTube video called “The Math of Rock Climbing.”

“Pure math is, to a great degree, separated from reality. So whenever possible, I like to connect really abstract math with things that are concrete and make it publicly accessible,” Garibaldi says. “When I’m teaching, I show students how the math in cryptology applies to their computers, and how the math of finance can be used to analyze whether the market is pricing something correctly.”

Garibaldi says that his greatest ambition is not to solve a major mystery in math or science, but to help young people sense the beauty and wonder inherent in those mysteries. “I have two young kids,” Garibaldi says. “I want to write a popular book on science that someday they will find just as compelling as Heinz Pagels’ and Richard Feynman’s books were to me.”

The math of rock climbing
Rock climber takes on surfer's theory
Lottery study zeros in on risk


  1. I think a mathematician would see the Monet mural, and think "wow, look at the size of that blackboard, imagine the formulae I could prove on that"

  2. This is fascinating - what a great profile! It also answers the question I ask people quite often - what do you see when you walk down the street? As a writer, I notice infinitely small details. The scuff on someone's shoe, the pace at which a ladybug crosses a leaf, the fifty shades of orange in a flower bloom, the sweep of someone's hair as they walk. I listen to the cadence in a person's voice and observe gestures and physical interaction. My artist father-in-law observed angles in architecture, contrast between light and dark, negative and positive space, variations in surface textures. My son is most aware of his surroundings through the sounds and rhythms they make - he is a musician.

    Fantastic exploration of a highly talented individual with a brilliant mind. Bravo!