Be There
and Be Square
It's a cool afternoon in the stylish Beachwood Canyon section of Los Angeles. The Hollywood sign glows in the distance. Fancy cars and oh-so-casually fancy people meander through the winding lanes. It could be a scene from Entourage, except you're not headed to some starlet-studded soiree. No, you're on your way to something far more exotic: Math-Club.

You and that confused looking middle-aged guy driving the SUV just ahead who's craning his neck to find parking. The guy with the license plate that reads NUMBER.

Math-Club is pretty much what it sounds like - an informal gathering of people who love solving equations and crunching derivatives. Led by an Israeli-born Californian writer rock-musician-Web designer-Harvard grad named Roni Brunn, the group meets every other month to hear experts hold forth on such subjects as computational origami and graph theory. Math-Club has its own motto ("Be there and be square"), sells its own T-shirts, and has a reputation for being overrun with Hollywood types. This annoys Brunn. "People say everyone in Math-Club writes for The Simpsons," she says. "I'm so sick of that."

While the group does seem heavy on Gen X filmmakers and screenwriters - one of this evening's attendees, a wise-cracking Brit, has just flown in from Sundance - there are also several math professors, a stockbroker, and a guy who "does some tech thing, I think," Brunn says. As far as she's concerned, the brightest star among the 20 or so people in attendance is the middle-aged SUV driver UC San Diego professor Ron Graham, a former chief scientist at AT&T Labs who also happens to be one of the most famous living mathematicians. This is the first time he has come to Math-Club as an audience member. On his last visit, he delivered a lecture titled "Is Complete Disorder Possible?"

Tonight's offering, by a young professor from Cal State Long Beach named Will Murray, is "The Mathematics of Juggling." The club has set up a makeshift lecture hall

in the host's backyard, with a few mismatched chairs lined up under a eucalyptus tree. For a projection screen, Brunn has taped a white ruffled bed skirt to the orange wall opposite the chairs.

The group sits down, and it's suddenly quiet. In the distance, a neighbor's pool filter whirs. "I've never before given a talk that's standing room only," Murray jokes anxiously, then launches into a demonstration of basic juggling, explaining how, in the'90s, mathematicians and jugglers used a numerical system called siteswap notation to discover new juggling patterns.

The seminal siteswap theorem, he says, was coauthored by none other than Ron Graham (who also, wouldn't you know, was once president of the International Jugglers' Association).

Murray gestures toward Graham, sitting in the third row. "I learned a lot of math from that paper," he continues, "but in the end, I didn't understand why the theorem was true. Others have come up with theorems that, to me, are more connected to juggling." Murray eyes Graham nervously, and an awkward silence descends.

But Murray forges on, demonstrating a few of his own mathematical juggling discoveries with a set of colored bowling pins. At the end of the presentation, Graham raises his hand, asks a polite question about "slightly negative throws," and tosses off a comment about using zeros in siteswap notation. The Math-Clubbers follow up with some questions of their own ('What's a post set?") and then head inside to socialize.

"Oh my gosh, that was nerve-racking," Murray says, still recovering from his face-to-face critique of Graham.

Brunn stands near a table laid with cookies and crudit&s, chatting with another Math-Club regular.

"It's pretty amazing that Ron Graham came," the regular says.

"Yeah. He's like the David Bowie of math" Brunn sighs. She's starstruck in Hollywood, at long last. - Eryn Brown

From the June, 2006 issue of Wired
be there and be square.