How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chaos, by Robin Blankenship

In the beginning, I had a favorite professor. The early morning class was undergraduate Number Theory, and I often found myself sitting outside the room taking notes through the window, too embarrassed to enter late. I visited his office every … Continue reading →

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chaos, by Robin Blankenship

In the beginning, I had a favorite professor. The early morning class was undergraduate Number Theory, and I often found myself sitting outside the room taking notes through the window, too embarrassed to enter late. I visited his office every week to talk about the math I was learning to stay ahead of the class and became genuinely obsessed with Number Theory. Before, I was just simply good at mathematics. Now, people would kick me in the grocery store line because I would be so deeply involved in thought that I would forget where I was. I was in love with math like I had never been before.

He told me, “Robin, I see how you think, and I want you to know that you think like a graph theorist. Promise me that you will take Graph Theory at your earliest opportunity in graduate school.” Of course, I promised immediately and enthusiastically. This professor gave me great advice on many occasions, much of which I have passed along to my own students, and I eventually did study Topological Graph Theory for my PhD.

But first, I decided to attend a university for a master’s degree. Having never written a big paper, I needed a step to prepare for a “big school in a big city.” To my surprise, despite graph theory being on the books, they had not actually offered it in recent years. Unable to fulfill my promise, I fell back on my first love. My first graduate course in Number Theory was as inspiring as my undergraduate experience. I asked the professor to be my advisor, and he agreed. Excitedly, I took the armful of papers that he gave me to begin exploring the possibilities.

The next few months were full of growing sadness and dismay. I couldn’t read those articles. It was like they were written in a different language. I was too proud and embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have a clue about how to do anything with what I had been given. I grieved alone. I kicked myself over my failure to make any progress whatsoever, and I could not bring myself to admit it to this kind and caring professor.

My spirit utterly broken, one fateful night I gathered the stack of number theory articles into my arms and headed to the 3rd floor stairwell. At 1:00am, the halls were dimly lit and my steps echoed off the walls. I was weeping uncontrollably, and tears rolled down my face to fall on the papers that I clutched in my arms. Frustrated and angry at myself, I threw that stack of papers down that stairwell with all the gusto and fury that I could muster. The papers most beautifully spread in the air and fluttered about, landing on almost every step from the 3rd floor to the 1st floor in a lovely spiral pattern—except for a small stack that landed on the bottom floor with a most satisfying “thud.”

That was when I heard a voice from below, “Robin, is that you?” Startled, having assumed I was completely alone, I jumped back.  I wiped the tears off my face and peeked over the railing. “It is you!” Oh, this professor was in just the right place at just the right time. He did not ask me to explain, but he began picking up the papers while talking soothingly, and he said he would deliver the papers to my Number Theory professor himself. I began to help, and soon all of them were whisked out of sight into his bag.

He presented me with a 3.5” floppy disk containing programs written in BASIC performing iterations on Lorenz difference equations and Henon maps. He suggested I investigate changing parameters to see what happens. We would go on to determine breaking points when the equations would begin to exert chaotic behavior. I officially became a student of Chaos Theory, a fitting tribute to those papers cascading down that stairwell.

After much study, the day finally came for me to defend my thesis in public. I expected a small audience of friends and committee members. However, my advisor had new-fangled ideas about the technology that could be used for such a presentation, and I became the first student at my university to present using a multi-media platform, a precursor to PowerPoint. An hour before my talk was scheduled to begin, I left the department to have a snack and calm myself down in my clubhouse that I had built in the woods nearby. When I returned, there was a crowd of people standing outside the department looking through the windows. Curious as to what was going on, I walked up, peeked through the windows, and asked them what they were looking at. They informed me that somebody was about to give a presentation that had never been given before.  The room inside had every seat filled and people standing along the back and side walls.  It slowly dawned on me that they were talking about MY presentation. My heart skipped a beat, and I felt weak in the knees.

My advisor had one more trick up his sleeve. As I nervously began opening my slides with their buttons and hidden code to cross reference definitions and create animations, to my astonishment, the very first slide after the introduction was not one that I had created.  He had put a hilarious—to him at least—page saying, “It will all become clear soon!” I immediately felt panic. I knew that I had not completely fixed all my reference buttons to refer to page names instead of numbers, and that would mean that those clicks would take us to a page after the intended one. Oh no!  There was nothing to do but keep going and hope for the best. It turns out he went through the entire presentation just to make sure that wouldn’t happen, and the talk went smoothly. And that, my friends, is how I learned to stop worrying and love chaos!

Dr. Robin Blankenship has been an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Morehead State University in Kentucky since 2005.  Born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains, she obtained a B.S. in Math at East Tennessee State University. She went on to earn a M.A. in Math at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington followed by a Ph.D. in Topological Graph Theory at Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge. Following her PhD, she did post-doctoral work in Math Education at Appalachian State University where she ran the Math Mobile, delivering hands-on activities to grades 2-5 in addition to creating a variety of math and science camps.  Since then, she has written a play called “Last Fraction Hero” that has been performed to over 32,000 students. Dr. Blankenship also loves to work with undergraduate research students. When not doing math, she loves all things outdoors: camping, hiking, caving, swimming, kayaking, and going on improvisational adventures.