Professor profile: The possibilities are not, as a matter of fact, endless

Love it or hate it, everyone uses mathematics to get through the day. It may be tough to convince some, but Jeremy Martin strives to show people that, not only is math important, it can be fun.

“It’s the way the world works,” Martin said of his field of expertise. “What I think a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s a lot more fun and a lot more accessible, and it’s not about memorizing formulas, it’s not something boring. It’s something that everyone can do, and really is a lot of fun.”

In a new KU YouTube video, Martin, assistant professor of mathematics, discusses making math accessible, combinatorics and the value of mathematics in outreach.

Too often, people focus on the outcome instead of the mathematical process. Martin said a good mathematical problem is one that opens new ways of thinking.

“Sometimes mathematics is really more about asking the questions than finding the eventual answers,” he said. “I would like to find the answers, but sometimes a really good mathematical problem is one that raises questions that lets you explore new things, that opens up new realms of possibility that we didn’t know existed beforehand.”

Some may view math as a field not prone to new discoveries, or where all is already known, but Martin applies his research to finding ways to solve problems with seemingly infinite possibilities. Combinatorics is the mathematical study of discrete structures.

“Sometimes a problem that seems to be infinite can be made finite by doing a bit of combinatorics,” Martin said.

A classic problem in combinatorics concerns a traveling salesperson who needs to visit 30 cities and wants to arrange the order of the trip to minimize money spent on gasoline. The challenge is to find an efficient order of destinations without having to look at every possible route. Combinatorics can help solve many related optimization problems: For example, the algorithms used by GPS devices rely on a branch of combinatorics known as graph theory.

That may sound complicated, but Martin has found success applying combinatorics to games as simple as tic tac toe and Connect Four, and using it in outreach to area high school students. His KU students often work with students from around the region in workshops and competitions.

“We’ll take a simple game like Connect Four, which everyone knows and loves from when they were a kid and look at the strategy of the game, but look at what are the patterns you have to be aware of as a player? How do you study those patterns? How do I look for patterns in games other than Connect Four?”

Such outreach gives students a new way to look at mathematics, while showing that a large university such as KU is indeed a welcoming place in which students can regularly interact with faculty, Martin said.

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Amanda Schwegler, assistant director, Center for Service Learning
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