A parabola can be defined as the locus of points equidistant from a fixed point (called the *focus*) and a fixed line (called the *directrix*). But we know from projective geometry that parabolas and ellipses are essentially the same object. Does this mean we can also define an ellipse in terms of a point and a line?

While tutoring a high school student recently, we worked through a problem that was essentially showing just that in a special case. Remarkably:

An ellipse can be defined as the locus of points $P$ for which the distance $|PF|$ to a focus $F$ is $\alpha$ times the distance from $P$ to a fixed line $\ell$ for some positive real number $\alpha\lt 1$.

Happy Halloween! It’s that time of year in which we celebrate ghosts, pumpkins, and fear itself. So, what better time to discuss a very common fear among adults these days: Mathematics!

If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’re probably already not too afraid of mathematics. But I hope you share this post with people who are somewhat spooked by it but like to face their fears now and then. And let’s face it, even for math lovers, every difficult-sounding math problem is always a little scary at first… until you work it out and realize that there’s only beauty behind the mask.

I recently made up the following problem for a friend teaching a discrete mathematics class:

Five kids, dressed as a Ghost, a Witch, a Monster, a Skeleton, and a Black Cat, knock at your door. You open it and welcome them in, but you realize you only have $3$ Snickers bars and $3$ Kit Kats left in your candy stash!

Since you have $6$ pieces of candy and there are only $5$ kids, you decide to give both a Kit Kat and a Snickers bar to the scariest costume, and then give the remaining four kids one piece each. How many different ways can you choose who to give what candy to?

Somehow, in all the time I’ve posted here, I’ve not yet described the structure of my favorite graded $S_n$-modules. I mentioned them briefly at the end of the Springer Correspondence series, and talked in depth about a particular one of them - the ring of coinvariants - in this post, but it’s about time for…

The Garsia-Procesi modules!

This year’s Prove it! Math Academy was a big success, and it was an enormous pleasure to teach the seventeen talented high school students that attended this year. Some of the students mentioned that they felt even more inspired to study math further after our two-week program, but the inspiration went both ways - they inspired me with new ideas as well!

One of the many, many things we investigated at the camp was the **Fibonacci sequence**, formed by starting with the two numbers $0$ and $1$ and then at each step, adding the previous two numbers to form the next: \[0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,\ldots\] If $F_n$ denotes the $(n+1)$st term of this sequence (where $F_0=0$ and $F_1=1$), then there is a remarkable formula for the $n$th term, known as **Binet’s Formula**:

\[F_n=\frac{1}{\sqrt{5}}\left( \left(\frac{1+\sqrt{5}}{2}\right)^n - \left(\frac{1-\sqrt{5}}{2}\right)^n \right)\]

Looks crazy, right? Why would there be $\sqrt 5$’s showing up in a sequence of integers?

Sometimes it’s the missteps in life that lead to the greatest adventures down the road.

For me, my pursuit of a Ph.D. in mathematics, specifically in algebraic combinatorics, might be traced back to my freshman year as an undergraduate at MIT. Coming off of a series of successes in high school math competitions and other science-related endeavors (thanks to my loving and very mathematical family!), I was a confident and excited 18-year old whose dream was to become a physicist and use my mathematical skills to, I don’t know, come up with a unified field theory or something.

But I loved pure math too, and a number of my friends were signed up for the undergraduate Algebraic Combinatorics class in the spring, so my young ambitious self added it to my already packed course load. I had no idea what “Algebraic Combinatorics” even meant, but I did hear that it was being taught by Richard Stanley, a world expert in the area. How could I pass up that chance? What if he didn’t teach it again before I left MIT?