January 17, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

There may be conventions with featured speakers who wear sandals in midwinter, admit their life's work has no practical applications and answer questions by writing out long and complicated equations.

But not many conferences include topics so far from reality that even the organizers acknowledge they sound bizarre.

About 5,000 mathematicians and math teachers are in Baltimore this week as part of the Joint Mathematics Meetings, held annually to discuss theorems, shapes and formulas that go way beyond balancing a checkbook. The meetings, at the Baltimore Convention Center, end tomorrow.

Numerous speakers focused on applied fields, such as genetic codes, encryption methods and engineering concepts to design buildings, bridges and more efficient car engines. But there also were talks by the pure mathematicians, who admit to spending years on problems that have absolutely no relevance to everyday life - and are proud of it.

"Almost all of it is completely off the wall," says Michael Breen, a spokesman for the American Mathematical Society, one of the sponsors of the conference.

Robin Wilson, a British mathematician and the son of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, is one such theorist who isn't bothered by questions over whether his work is useful. He seems to look down on the word.

"Mathematicians don't ask if there are any applications to their work. We're not concerned with applications," said Wilson, who wore a T-shirt this week promoting his book about an obscure math problem that stumped experts for more than a century before it was solved in the 1970s.

Wilson has been known to dress up as Lewis Carroll, the Oxford math instructor and Alice in Wonderland author whose real name was Charles Dodgson, for presentations. Wilson's book focuses on the Four Color Problem, a riddle for mapmakers that stumped Carroll and other mathematicians before it was solved in 1976.

Mathematics offers both the challenge of problem solving and the beauty of an abstract world filled with numbers that add up.

"Ask yourself, why do people play chess? Because it's simple, beautiful and challenging," said Nikolai Ivanov, a math professor at Michigan State University. "It's the same way with math."

The mathematicians are a quirky group, with their own set of heroes (the semi-obscure Leonhard Euler, Carl Friedrich Gauss or Bernhard Riemann ) and their own vocabulary.

And they have their own priorities about what's important. Think of Einstein wandering the streets of Princeton, lost and without socks. You get the idea.

David C. Torney, a mathematician at the Los Alamos Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., would be reluctant to compare himself to Einstein. But he spoke at the conference this week - on the field of combinatorics - in Birkenstock sandals, set off by white socks.

Torney, who looks down at the floor with a childlike shyness as he talks, says the white socks and Birkenstocks help prevent athlete's foot, an affliction that often strikes him.

"I guess mathematicians are eccentric, but I think this is rational behavior," said Torney, whose expertise is in the science of counting ways that any set of objects can be arranged.

In his talk, Torney showed how a cube projected on an overhead projector - where it looks like a huge, multipointed soccer ball - can be reshaped by twisting the triangular shapes imbedded inside it. "It's like taking a paperweight and tossing it into the air and seeing what kind of shape you get," he said.

Torney describes himself as an applied mathematician, noting he was one of hundreds of scientists who worked on the Human Genome Project, a historic effort to map the chain of DNA that make up the building blocks of humans.

But he admits his discussion topic can be difficult to grasp and may never be useful in any field or technology. But it also one day, might make for a faster computer chip, or a more fuel efficient car engine or turbine, he said.

It is a common mantra among mathematicians: their work could be useful one day.

"Many of these things have no direct applications and never will. Does everything have to have a use? Why do you do a crossword puzzle, why write a concerto?" Wilson said.