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Fresh Faculty of the Week- Corey Manack

Issue | Mon, 02/06/2012 - 21:29

Mathematics Professor Corey Manack graduated with a Bachelors of Science from Ohio State Univ. He received his Masters of Sciences and Ph.D. from Indiana Univ.

What brought you to Amherst?

Well, honestly when I interviewed here, I thought it was a terrific school, and from what I’d heard about it, I thought it was an excellent place to teach, even for a visiting position. It was the best school I applied to, and when they offered, I accepted immediately. The students have been great, the faculty’s been great; it’s strange to be at a place where everyone’s happy.

What made you choose math?

The Cookie Monster Cookie Counter! Christmas 1984. There are lots of stories. I think the one that I like the best is, my relative always said that at some point, I was able to add two two-digit numbers before I could really speak the answer, so I think it’s just always been in me. I mean when you get calculators for Christmas, there’s probably something very intrinsic about you that tells you that you should be a mathematician. But it wasn’t always this easy. I thought, at the end of high school, I’d get into computer science, and I really enjoyed my computer science courses, but taking AP Calc my senior year … it really was as romantic as erasing Computer Science as my major and putting down Mathematics, and the rest is history. As far as math goes, it’s beautiful, it’s free of the fuzz of life and you can operate in a world where things are true and always will be true. Models for the atom change and always some theory breaks down if the scale is either too large or too small, and math persists. I mean, the stuff that Euclid proved is still true today, so that ability to leave a legacy of ideas that are impenetrable or just will always stand up to time, is also something nice. Of course, I’d also like to say that I haven’t really accomplished any of this, but the idea of establishing some sort of research legacy is really kind of appealing. And I think math, for me, is more a feeling, than it is really thinking — the excitement of breaking through a problem, or being able to convey that excitement to the students, those things. It’s really rewarding, it’s the best job in the world, I really enjoy what I do.

Which classes are you teaching this semester?

This semester, it’s Discrete and Statistics, and, again, this sort of reflects my fast and loose style. I like to teach lots of courses, and Statistics and Discrete sort of live at opposite ends of the spectrum. Statistics is trying to quantify the fuzz, or the uncertainty.

The real world.

Yeah, exactly. But even, there’s a process to that as well; being able to quantify uncertainty can be done. And then with Discrete, it’s really starting at the beginning, logic, sets and the structure, the foundations of higher orders of thinking begin in discrete. That rewiring is difficult for students, I think, but necessary if you’re going to pursue math.

What do you do in your spare time?

When spare time existed, what did I like to do? I like bowling. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been hanging out with Black Studies Assistant Professor Polk. We’ll go out and discuss things over a couple beers, and it’s been nice to find a friend on campus. I [also] like hiking.

I heard something about playing Risk…

Oh, of course, the Risk, yes. Well the Risk has sort of now turned into a research endeavor, so I don’t know if it’s really spare time any more. I guess this is really my goal, to fold things I enjoy into the work so it hopefully makes both more enjoyable. But yeah, I’ve always liked puzzles, chess and these things. Turning Risk into research that I always joked about with my fellow grad students, because this is what we did when we should have been working on our dissertations. But, it’s something I think I can sell to the students, and I think it’s ripe for research, so it hits that nice, paper-thin edge of accessible but still, there’s good math in there that you don’t need much background to actually get into. Riskology is what I call it.

Well, it’s probability, and people like probability because it’s very tangible.

I think so, and plus, you get good results that are surprising, like the Birthday Problem, in probability. It’s just something that I give to my students every class ... [The Birthday Problem] is, if there are 23 people in a room, there’s a 50 percent chance that two of them share the same birthday, which again is amazing, because for 100 percent chance, you would need 367 students. That would guarantee that two share the same birthday. But to get a 50 percent chance, you need far less than 50 percent of the number of days, you only need 23. This is something that works well in stats, because there is some underlying probability that we’d like to get to. And in Discrete, especially in the beginning, with logic, we’re taking a lot of time formalizing this intuition, so I think there’s a lot of inertia to overcome, as far as why do we really have to make things so formal. And the point is, once you live in this world, you can prove things that defy your intuition. You have to get the language [and] the grammar down first, so that you can operate well in this world, and communicate your ideas to other mathematicians. But yeah, the Birthday Problem is fantastic. Probably for every class for the rest of my life, I will give the Birthday Problem, because it’s easy, it’s fun and you can test it out in class!

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