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2002 Chauvenet Prize

Ellen Gethner, University of British Columbia

Stan Wagon, Macalester College

Brian Wick, University of Alaska - Anchorage

Ellen Gethner, Stan Wagon, and Brian Wick will be receiving the prestigious Chauvenet Prize on January 7, 2002 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, California. First awarded in 1925, the Chauvenet Prize is presented by the Mathematical Association of America for an outstanding expository article on a mathematical topic by a member or members of the Association.

The distinguished award is given in recognition for the article, “A Stroll through the Gaussian Primes,” American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 105, No. 4, 1998, pp. 327–337.

This excellent expository article describes the Gaussian moat problem concerning the distribution of the Gaussian primes in the complex plane. The problem was first posed by Basil Gordon at the International Congress of Mathematicians held in Stockholm in 1962 and later popularized by Paul Erdös. If one uses the Gaussian primes as stepping stones, can one walk to infinity with steps of bounded length? It is fascinating and still an unanswered question. Using a very accessible and pleasant style, Ellen Gethner, Stan Wagon, and Brian Wick present the history of and motivation for the problem. The paper includes a proof that the walk to infinity cannot take place on a straight line. It is known that there are regions of any size containing no Gaussian primes, but it is not known whether there are angular sectors not admitting a walk to infinity. The authors then discuss the main problem, of the existence of large moats without Gaussian primes, and describe computational methods that they use. The paper contains striking illustrations of some moats and of the eight-fold symmetry of the set of all Gaussian primes.

Ellen Gethner received her AB in 1981 from Smith College, her Ph.D. from Ohio University in 1992, and is in the final stages of another Ph.D. in Theoretical Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. She taught at Swarthmore, Grinnell, and Claremont McKenna Colleges, and enjoyed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). Her research interests span many fields including graph theory, graph algorithms, combinatorics, number theory, computational and discrete geometry, complex analysis, and the surprising connections among them. She has given numerous research talks throughout North America, and continues to enjoy her role as a communicator of mathematics.

Stan Wagon is a professor of mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of several books, such as The Banach-Tarski Paradox, Which Way Did the Bicycle Go?, Mathematics in Action, and A Course in Computational Theory. A book-software combination authored by him and titled The Mathematical Explorer was recently released by Wolfram Media, Inc. He obtained some notoriety when he built a squared-wheeled bike and a road for riding it smoothly, a construction that earned him an appearance in Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not. His main interests are the impact of modern software on math teaching and research, and he has written many papers showing how Mathematica can be used to examine and gain understanding about objects that formerly were considered quite abstract. He is a competent rock-climber, ski mountaineer, and in May 2000 participated in a 17-day expedition skiing to 19,000 feet, near the summit of Mt. Logan, the highest peak in Canada.

Brian Wick was raised in La Jolla, California and attended San Diego University where he received B.S. and M.S. degrees in mathematics. After that, he moved to Seattle where he studied inder the direction of Dr. Robert Warfield in the area of infinite Abelian groups. He received his Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Washington. Upon graduation, he accepted the first full-time mathematics position at the University of Alaska at Anchorage (nee Anchorage Senior College). There, he served as chairman of the Department of Mathematics for 10 years as well as the Division Head of the division of Science and Mathematics. He developed the baccalaureate degree in mathematics and was instrumental in starting the disciplines of physics, applied statistics, and computer science. During his tenure at UAA, he taught the majority of the mathematics courses, the calculus level physics course, and many computer science courses. In 1997, he received the Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics Award by the Pacific Northwest Section of the Mathematical Association of America.