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Xavier Magazine | February 22, 2018

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Decoding Math

Decoding Math
By Jen Saltsman

Quick. Decipher this code:

Bnpv. kp’t slp yiyuhlsy’t enilukpy tqxayzp, nsm bnpvybnpkzt juleyttlu mysn blupls wsldt kp. pvnp’t dvh tvy’t zuynpym bnpv elu pvy zuynpkiy bksm, n zontt mytkrsym nulqsm pvy kmyn pvnp bnpvybnpkzt zns xy xynqpkeqo nsm uyoyinsp pl yiys pvy bltp ukrvp-xunksym ksmkikmqnot. Yiyuh ekepyys dyywt, dkpv nttkrsbyspt kszoqmksr n dvlmqskp bhtpyuh, ns yszuhjpkls nsm myzkjvyubysp nttkrsbysp nsm ns liyuikyd le rnby pvyluh, blupls tvldt n syd rulqj le tpqmyspt pvy xynqph ks sqbxyut.

Can’t figure it out? Dena Morton can. In fact, it probably wouldn’t take the associate professor of mathematics any longer than five minutes to decipher it. And she’s happy to share her secret.

That’s actually the first thing she teaches students in her course, Mathematics and the Creative Imagination—how to encrypt and decipher
secret messages.

Doesn’t sound like your typical math class, does it? Well, that’s kind of the point. By incorporating hands-on, creative projects into the syllabus, Morton has found a way to turn even the most right-brained individuals into math enthusiasts within the 50 minutes of allotted class time.

“Here, look,” she says, picking up a piece of paper from her desk. “I show this to my students during the first week of class. There is no way anyone can see this and not think it’s cool.”

Morton takes the scrap of paper and cuts it into a long, skinny strip. She twists one side of the paper and connects the two ends with
tape, creating a loop known as a Mobius strip. She then takes a pen and draws a line down the middle, and, without lifting her pen the line
ends up on the other side of the loop.

“Even though this looks like a two dimen-sional loop, it really only has one side, see? This is topology—it’s math.”

In addition to including creative projects that illustrate the principles of cryptology and topology, Morton also includes logic and game theory into her class. One of her assignments involves a murder-mystery game, while another project involves plotting outcomes of a game
onto a graph and then turning those plotted points into colors, creating a painted image for the end result.

Tim Holliday, a junior history major and former student of Morton’s, signed up for Mathematics and the Creative Imagination in the fall semester of his sophomore year. Before taking Morton’s class, Holliday says he thought math was tedious and useless. But, he says he found a new respect for it. He even went so far as to describe math as an elegant and interesting subject.

“My advisor suggested I take the class, partly because she said it was a good one for non-math majors,” says Holliday. “And it was great for me because it created a dialogue between disciplines, like history and math. It opened my eyes to how math affects history, as well as other things, too.”

Morton created the course after teaching a similar class as a master’s student at Johns Hopkins University. She says that the language of math is in everything, and she’s happy she gets the chance to change the way students feel about the subject.

While the course has many components, cryptology may be the most fun. It’s also a perfect intersection of language and math. The art of studying, writing and breaking codes requires a strong knowledge of language and letter frequencies. Codes can range from simple substitution cipher systems (A=D, B=E, C=F) to complex computer coding.

“Cryptology is kind of romantic because you get to talk about wars and spies, and stuff like that,” Morton says. “It’s the art and science of making and keeping secrets. It is hard with some students because they are so convinced that they hate math. But their minds change when they see how beautiful and fun it really is. That’s what I try to show them in my class.”

By the way, here’s the answer to the problem:

Math. It’s not everyone’s favorite subject, and mathematics professor Dena Morton knows it. That’s why she’s created Math for the Creative Imagination, a class designed around the idea that mathematics can be beautiful and relevant to even the most right-brained of individuals. Every 15 weeks, with assignments including a whodunit mystery, an encryption and decipherment assignment, and an overview of game theory, Morton shows a new group of students the beauty in numbers.


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