Saturday, February 28, 2015

2015 Saturday Morning Physics at JMU came and went...

Kudos to Geary Albright, Art Fovargue, the physics faculty lecturers, the physics majors, and last but not least our dear participants (students, teachers and parents) who contributed to yet another great edition of the program! Well done everybody! So long!

See photos here from the wrap up event today, Feb. 28, 2015!

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Demystifying the Expert: Jason Rosenhouse

From left to right: Feitosa, Constantin, Rosenhouse, and panelists
photo from

On Thursday, January 29, 2015 the third installment of JMuse Café's series, Demystifying the Expert, took place. Through teaming up with physics professors Anca Constantin and Klebert Feitosa to present this series, JMuse Café  has been able to close the gap between scientists and the JMU public. This is done through back-and-forth guessing, joking, and discussion of the expert's expertise between our hosts (Constantin & Feitosa), the expert, and 4 members of JMU's only improv comedy group New & Improv.'d. As I mentioned in the post about the most recent event, the format for this series was borrowed from a Boston NPR show entitled You're the Expert.

Our expert this event was Jason Rosenhouse, a professor of Mathematics at JMU. As one of the hosts aptly pointed out at the beginning of the show, JMuse Café could easily run at least 4 events focused on Rosenhouse (further speculation has led me to believe that 4 events may still not be enough, considering his potential for both engaging and entertaining the public); unfortunately, we only had one. Before coming to JMU in 2003, he spent three years at Kansas State University after earning his Ph.D. in Mathematics from Dartmouth and his B.S. from Brown. In addition to a number of publications pertaining to his research, Rosenhouse has authored 3 award-winning books (all of which found their way into my Amazon shopping cart while I wrote this...).

Before giving away too much about our expert, it's important to acknowledge the panel of comedians whose job it was that evening to try to extract that information from him. Trevor Knickerbocker is a senior intelligence analysis major, currently enrolled in one of Dr. Feitosa's classes. Despite this, he still maintained that Feitosa didn't feed him any information about the expert. Amanda Anzalone is a junior media arts & design major double-minoring in  French and creative writing. She may have gotten answers wrong, but at least she could do so in two languages. Business major Mikail Faalasi came to this series with his knowledge of science limited to the science of making money. Lastly, Logan Brown is a junior theater major whose answers were both comedy (for the audience) and tragedy (for him).

Our Panelists, from left to right: Mikhail, Amanda, Logan, and Trevor
photo from
Following the same outline as previous events in the series, the evening consisted of several games with time for discussion in between. To jumpstart an evening consisting primarily of the expert getting bombarded with questions, Rosenhouse was given the opportunity to ask the panelists a question: What is mathematics? While the panelists were technically correct in saying that math is "NUMBERS", "and some letters", "and some imaginary things", the correct answer was in fact, "a chick magnet."

In the first game, the panelists are given the opportunity to bombard the expert with 20-questions-style questions. During this time, the audience was able to gain long lists of things Rosenhouse does and does not do. On the former list are things like, theoretical math, getting cramps from writing theoretical math, graphs, solving equations, spending time inside, and escaping life. Of the latter, we learned that Rosenhouse does not apply his math to a "field" of study, because, as he mentioned earlier, he does not go outside.

What really sparked Rosenhouse's interest in math was a day in 6th grade when he was faced with the first theorem that was not obviously true to him: the Pythagorean theorem. He remarked that his teacher at the time just threw it up on the board without proving it, and this both impressed him and caused some skepticism. It was then that he saw that math is more than what most people think it is.

At this point, Rosenhouse surely made math-lovers out of anyone in the audience who was not one already; he pointed out that people who say they don't like math, simply don't like arithmetic, but the subject itself is,

    A combination of art and science and beauty - it's the exact opposite of memorizing rules - it's discovering them and proving them.

He went on to comment that people who think that math is fundamentally about calculating things have missed the point entirely; it's about observing the beauty of math. For mathematicians, the fact that math is useful is simply a bonus on top of everything else math is. Rosenhouse commented, "We can make money and go back to our little enclaves to do math!"

Throughout the evening, there were brief discussions of the three books Rosenhouse has authored. The first book he discussed was The Monty Hall Problem: The Remarkable Story of Math's Most Contentious Brain Teaser. The Monty Hall problem was inspired by a game show where contestants are faced with 3 doors, one of which has a prize behind it. After choosing one door, the host (aware of what lies behind each door) opens one of the doors that does not contain the prize, giving the contestant the opportunity to change his or her guess now that the odds of guessing correctly have changed. The "problem" behind the Monty Hall problem, is whether or not being able to change guesses actually makes a difference. In addition to the mathematical implications of the problem, there are also psychological aspects of it as well. Secondly, Rosenhouse discussed a book he co-authored with Laura Taalman, another professor of Math at JMU: Taking Sudoku Seriously: The Math Behind the World's Most Popular Pencil Puzzle. This book addresses the questions mathematicians have about sudoku puzzles (which,  contrary to popular belief, do require math to solve - just not arithmetic). On a topic not wholly unrelated to math, his third book, entitled Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line. On this topic, Rosenhouse said,

            The evolution debate is where scientific ignorance has consequences – the earth isn’t 6,000 years old. These people don’t know what they’re talking about. They reference math and science and they whip out equations, but if you know anything, you know they’re wrong. Yet, they’ll say it with confidence. You have extreme insularity – that’s the problem. People will tell them what they want to hear as if it validates their opinions.

Throughout the following games, the audience and panelists gained further insight into the specific work Rosenhouse does concerning Kayley graphs, sexy primes, and the Cheeger constant. They also got to know a lot about the expert as a person. His favorite plant is the rhododendron, and he may well be the only person who thinks clowns are funny, not creepy.  But beyond that, he quite possibly one of the most quotable people we've seen in this series. When asked what he believed the meaning of life to be, he promptly replied,

    Find something you enjoy doing and leave your little corner of the world better for having done so.

As evidenced by last Thursday's evening of comedy and mathematical discussion, it is obvious that he certainly has accomplished that and probably more. If you were unable to attend this past event (as well as the two before that) you have truly missed out. But there is still one more chance, so be sure to join us in the flex space of Rose Library at 6:30 pm on February 26, 2015 as we bring this series to a close!

Hosts Feitosa and Constantin with Rosenhouse and panelists in the background
photo from

-Keely Criddle
JMuse Café/Physics & Astronomy Blogger

JMU PhysTEC in the news

JMU's PhysTEC program (Physics Teacher Education Coalition) and the role Learning Assistants in Physics 240-250 were recently highlighted on JMU's home page. See the complete story here: JMU addresses shortage of high school physics teachers

Photo of JMU Physics major Kerlin Doss who is in the Secondary Education track and has 
participated as an LA and is one of two student LAs highlighted in the article.