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Rutgers professor discusses new position at National Museum of Mathematics

Alex Kontorovich, professor in the Department of Mathematics, took over as distinguished visiting professor for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics on Sept. 1 at the National Museum of Mathematics.
Photo by Rutgers.eduAlex Kontorovich, professor in the Department of Mathematics, took over as distinguished visiting professor for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics on Sept. 1 at the National Museum of Mathematics.

The National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) announced on Aug. 24 that Alex Kontorovich, professor in the Department of Mathematics, would be its next distinguished visiting professor for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics, according to a press release. Kontorovich began his one-year appointment at the museum on Sept. 1.

Kontorovich, who is also MoMath's dean of Academic Content, will take over the position from Peter Winkler, research mathematician and puzzle master, who joined in 2019, and Fields Medalist and Princeton University Professor Manjul Bhargava, who held the role from 2018 to 2019.

CEO and executive director of MoMath, Cindy Lawrence, said she first met Kontorovich when he began working at Rutgers.

“With (Kontorovich), it's like we've already been working together for a while and so I'm very, very excited because he's going to have more time for us now,” she said.

Lawrence said Kontorovich already leads two programs at the museum, “Ask a Mathematician — Anything!,” where audience members are encouraged to ask their most puzzling questions, and “Meet a Mathematician,” where mathematicians are featured telling their stories and experiences. He will build on his involvement in the museum by teaching one course in the fall, “The Arc of Math, Ancient to Modern,” and one in the spring, “The Surprising Intersections between Math and Music,” according to the press release.

In his class, “The Arc of Math, Ancient to Modern,” Kontorovich said he would be answering questions related to math such as, “Why are we doing this? What is algebra? Where did it come from?” As a graduate school professor, he said he has the opportunity to teach and discover these topics much more than regular teachers do.

“If (my students) start asking questions where they get interested in things, we’ll take an entire lecture detour into something that they want to talk about, because I have that flexibility and that freedom,” he said.

He said he believes that math is alive and should be taught as such, rather than through a curriculum planned years in advance. Aside from teaching courses, he also hopes to create new ways of doing mathematics.

Kontorovich’s spring course explains how one’s interaction with music affects their perspective of math and vice versa. He himself is a musician and composer, which he said influences the way he does math.

“The structure of music, the harmony, the rhythm, the pattern-seeking, all of that is very much using the same part of my brain, as far as I can tell, that helps me find creative things to do in math,” Kontorovich said.

Although MoMath normally has in-person visitors, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic caused it to move to a virtual format, Lawrence said. The museum is now holding live-streams, which allows them to reach people outside of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Lawrence said MoMath has garnered international attention in more than 90 countries since going virtual, and said the museum will continue to expand its outreach even after it reopens.

“(Kontorovich is) joining at an exciting time when we can reopen for the first time. We will actually be live and online," she said.

Kontorovich said MoMath’s mission is important because it serves as a unique environment where people can discuss different mathematical concepts.

“There's no sort of public setting where people can have intellectual discourse on topics related to mathematics. So in the heart of New York City, (MoMath is) such a place,” he said.