From toys to ‘Toy Story’: Speakers explore the creative world of math

people lecturing

May 6, 2024 - 12:00 p.m.

When you watch a Pixar animated movie, you may not realize the millions of mathematical equations behind every frame.

If that sounds overwhelming, you’re not alone. Confusing equations and incomprehensible numbers often lead many to stray away from mathematics altogether. Ellen Eischen, a math professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, aims to shift this narrative during the Mathematics Department’s upcoming Distinguished Lecture Series May 10 and 15.

“There is a big segment of society that’s scared of math,” Eischen said. “It’s important to have avenues that are welcoming and let people see parts of math that are fun and creative.”

The lecture series, which started nearly eight years ago, has highlighted the role of math in everything from sports analytics to movie production. One of the overarching goals of the series is to show the application of mathematics in a broader context that students would not typically see in a classroom setting.

This year’s speakers combine creativity with computation to show how math permeates the world around us, from everyday objects to animated films.

Toy Models: Small Mathematics in a Big World

Tadashi Tokieda, professor of mathematics at Stanford University, uses toys to explain mathematical and physical concepts that have puzzled scientists and mathematicians for decades. In his May 10 lecture, which will take place at 4 p.m. in Fenton 110, he will use toys to demonstrate how these seemingly ordinary objects reveal intricate mathematical processes.

Pixar in a Box: The Math Behind the Movies

Tony DeRose, former senior scientist for Pixar, has over 40 years of experience with computer graphics research and development. He has recently partnered with Khan Academy to create Pixar in a Box , a series of online lessons that demonstrate how middle and high school level math concepts are used to address creative challenges at Pixar. His May 15 lecture, which will take place at 5 p.m. in Fenton 110, will provide a behind-the-scenes look at how mathematics has contributed to a revolution in the filmmaking industry.

One of Eischen’s primary goals for the lecture series is to create a welcoming environment that perpetuates the idea that math can be exciting. She believes it is important to have opportunities that expose people to the creative and joyful sides of mathematics without the pressure of grades and the judgment that often comes with a classroom setting. She hopes these lectures inspire students to dive deeper into the creative realm of math.

Undergraduate students will have the opportunity to further connect with the lecturers at a private dinner directly following the lecture. Around eight students can join each lecturer to ask more in-depth questions and learn about the lecturer’s industry and personal journey. This opportunity is limited to undergraduate students on a first-come, first-served basis.

“The opportunity is special,” Eischen said. “Students don’t have to feel shy in the presence of professors and can engage with the speakers on a deeper level.”

— By Bailey Meyers, College of Arts and Sciences