Mathematician uses brain games to inspire future thinkers

By Barbara Byrd – bbyrd1@unca.edu – Contributor | March 25, 2015 |

Jeff Weeks plans to make abstract mathematics exciting and entertaining through the use of 3-D

games and graphics at the annual UNC Asheville Parsons Lecture. His work aims to make

complex mathematical concepts, such as the idea of 4-D space, engaging and simple to understand for all ages.

 

“With any sort of geometrical idea, pictures are vastly more effective than words, and animations

are even more effective than pictures. In other words, the easiest way to understand a new idea is

to see it in action. 3-D graphics let us directly experience different possible shapes for the

universe, and get a gut-level intuitive understanding of them, without relying on long verbal

descriptions,” Weeks said.

 

Weeks published his book, The Shape of Space: How to Visualize Surfaces and Three-

dimensional Manifolds, in 1985.

 

He said he received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, known as the genius grant, in 1999 and his current work with computer 3-D graphics and games resulted from research conducted as a MacArthur Fellow.  This fellowship allows scholars to work a field of their choice without financial or organizational constraints.

 

“It was a wonderful and most welcome experience, being able to work for five years on whatever

I wanted, with no concern about funding and no administrative demands,” Weeks said. “The

timing was good, too. During those MacArthur years I did a lot of my work on the shape of the

universe, and also developed the first shape-of-space materials for middle and high school

students.”

 

David Peifer, UNC Asheville’s mathematics department chair, selected Weeks as guest lecturer for 2015. He explained the basic concept and importance of Weeks’ work.

 

“He is using 3-D models to visualize how topologists think of shapes,” Peifer said. “Understanding math at this level is important if we want to be able to proceed. This is the way

you think of things mathematically.  What’s important about what he’s done is he’s made this

accessible to middle school students and high school students.”

 

Weeks’ use of simple games such as tic-tac-toe and crossword puzzles, all rendered in 3-D

computer models, makes these abstract concepts less confusing and obscure, Peifer said.

 

Weeks said he hopes his work has an impact, particularly on younger students.

 

“It’s good for kids to experience the thrill of a truly new idea every now and then. These sort of

‘Wow!’ experiences not only motivate a new generation of scientists and engineers, but also  shape everyone’s future — scientists’ and non-scientists’ alike — approach to learning,” Weeks said.

 

Sam Kaplan, mathematics professor at UNCA, said this work helps students

understand and visualize difficult concepts.

 

“While we do know the laws of physics, it is less clear how to determine the shape of the

universe. In order to build intuition and better understand what these different spaces are like,

using animation, we can create images of what it is like to live in one of these spaces,” Kaplan

said.

 

Weeks said he hopes his work will make students of all ages excited about the field of

mathematics.

 

“We humans have learned all sorts of beautiful and amazing things about our universe, both the

physical universe and the mathematical universe that underlies it.  It’s important that these ideas

not be restricted to some relatively small group of researchers, but that they be shared with all of

humanity,” Weeks said. “There’s much joy to be had in understanding our universe, and I’m happy whenever I can make even a small contribution toward making that understanding easily accessible to as many people as possible.”

 

The Parsons Lecture, an annual event made possible by an endowment from an alumnus of

UNCA, honors Joe Parsons, a former UNCA mathematics professor and dean. Parsons

was also instrumental in the development of a four-year curriculum when the college initially

joined the University of North Carolina system, Peifer said.

 

The Parsons Lecture, free and open to the public, will be held on the UNCA campus March

26 in Lipinsky Auditorium.

 

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