Imagine a child on the floor of a shopping mall jumping from square tile to another, oblivious to the infinite distance they could theoretically travel. Now imagine the same child jumping from only the off-colored tiles trying to land on only the tiles similar in discoloration. Can the child jump forever? Confused yet?
Brian D. Wick, Ph.D, a professor at University of Alaska Anchorage, considers the child's dilemma in calculated mathematical terms. And for that, he will be awarded in January with the Mathematical Association of America's Chauvenet Prize in San Diego.
Wick, along with two other mathematicians, spent over a year writing an exposition titled "A Stroll through the Gaussian Primes" published in American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 105, No. 4, in 1998. The piece discussed the Gaussian moat problem, named after the German mathematician and astronomer Karl Friedrich Gauss, and focuses on the distribution of primes in a complex plane. In other words, can the child in the shopping mall, jumping from the discolored tiles, jump for infinity?
The Chauvenet Prize grants the winner $1,000, along with a certificate at the Annual Meeting of the Association. Named after a professor at the United States Naval Academy, William Chauvenet, the award dates back to 1925.
“It's a great honor,” said Wick of the award.
Wick received both his bachelor's and master's degree from San Diego State University and later received his doctorate at University of Washington.
Stan Wagon, one of Wick's co-writers, teaches mathematics and computer science at Macalester College in Minn. Wick attended a course on mathematica, or computer programming to do math problems, taught by Wagon.
“I went to a course offered by Wagon and I got involved,” Wick said. Wick and Wagon teamed with Ellen Gethner, who currently teaches at University of British Columbia, and set out to write the Chauvenet Prize-winning piece in 1997. The exposition is based upon an idea first introduced in the 1960s at the International Congress of Mathematicians.
The written exposition proves that one walking, or in the child's case jumping, to infinity cannot do so in a straight line. The main problem discussed in the paper is the computational methods used to better understand the problem of walking to infinity. The question remains unanswered and the passion from Wick's hard works is expressed in his highly complex, very confusing explanation of the intense math problem.
Wick has been at UAA since 1972 and is the first to have received the prestigious Chavenet Prize. He currently teaches all levels of math. In 1997, Wick received a MAA Pacific Northwest Section Award for distinguished college or university teaching mathematics in recognition of extraordinarily successful teaching.