When the Precision of Mathematics Meets the Messiness of the World

2 Nov 2017
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

60 Evans Hall

Event Type
Non-CSTMS Event

Keith Devlin

MUSA and the Department of Mathematics, University of California, Berkeley, present the 2017-18 Serge Lang Undergraduate Lecture.


Almost all mathematicians are attracted to the subject by its certainty and precision. It’s one of the most finely sharpened blades in the human cognitive armory. It rules supreme in many parts of Physics and Engineering. It is almost as precise when applied to the activities of large populations of living creatures, including humans, though the precision then is a statistical one that applies to the group as a whole. But can math be useful when applied to living creatures on a more local scale? The answer is “yes”, but the contribution mathematics can make shifts from “providing precise answers to specific questions” to “providing data that helps a domain expert make a decision”. These newer uses of mathematics can be traced back at least as far as the early days of probability theory (concepts such as “utility”), but became prevalent much more recently, with applications in the financial markets (for example, the Black-Scholes model for pricing derivatives), workplace study and design (including workplace communication), and intelligence analysis. I’ll give examples from the last two domains, both of which I have worked in. Unless you find your way into a university mathematics department after graduation, you may find yourself using mathematics in this kind of way.

About the Speaker

Dr. Keith Devlin is a mathematician at Stanford University in California, a co-founder and Executive Director of the university’s H-STAR institute, a co-founder of the Stanford mediaXresearch network, and a Senior Researcher at CSLI. He is a World Economic Forum Fellow, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society. His current research is focused on the use of different media to teach and communicate mathematics to diverse audiences. In this connection, he is a co-founder and President of an educational technology company, BrainQuake, that creates mathematics learning video games. He also works on the design of information/reasoning systems for intelligence analysis. Other research interests include: theory of information, models of reasoning and communication, and mathematical cognition. He has written 33 books and over 80 published research articles. Recipient of the Peano Prize, the Pythagoras Prize, the Carl Sagan Award, and the Communications Award of the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics. In 2003, he was recognized by the California State Assembly for his “innovative work and longtime service in the field of mathematics and its relation to logic and linguistics.” He is “the Math Guy” on National Public Radio.

This event is sponsored by: Department of Mathematics