Feb 1, 2016 | Atlanta, GA
The subject of mathematics is most often associated with logic, rules, and reason. Sometimes, though, it’s best served with a side of magic.
Matt Baker, an award-winning professor in Tech’s School of Mathematics, also happens to be an award-winning magician. Baker recently won his second major honor in the magic world, being named the 2015 Greater Atlanta Magician of the Year by the Atlanta Society of Magicians and Georgia Magic Club. Recipients are chosen by a combined peer vote in both organizations.
Baker discovered magic around the age of 10 through an older cousin, who gave him his first magic book (Harry Lorayne’s Close Up Card Magic). The interest led to him doing kids’ birthday parties and shows for friends as a teenager, and it remained a hobby.
After earning degrees at the University of Maryland and University of California–Berkeley, Baker was a professor at Harvard University and the University of Georgia before coming to Tech in 2004. When he moved to Atlanta, he began to get involved with the local magic community. He and his wife were expecting their first child around the same time, so he decided to whittle his various hobbies down to just magic. He learned from both the professional magicians and dedicated amateurs in the local magic clubs, as well as from DVDs and books.
“With so many resources available, I realized I could actually think about becoming good at this,” he said.
Baker enjoys performing close-up and parlor-style magic, and has a special fondness for card tricks, which allow him to combine his passions for magic and mathematics. His academic interests are in number theory, algebraic geometry, and combinatorics, with a particular interest in how these different fields are linked to each other. His expertise sometimes lets him take a different approach to magic than other magicians.
“There’s a lot of math in card magic,” he said. “Just like with a recipe, you might be able to follow the recipe and execute it, but you may not know enough about how it works to vary it. With card magic, I know enough to be able to combine principles in new ways and jazz around with existing effects.”
Baker performs mostly original material when he does shows and has published three original tricks in national magic publications, with a fourth to be published later this year. In one original trick, he offers to show the audience the difference between “estimation, memorization, and magic.” A volunteer cuts and shuffles a deck several times and flips some cards over at random. Baker then wows the audience by knowing exactly how many cards are flipped over and exactly which ones — number and suit — are not.
And yet, the math behind the trick isn’t always the hard part.
“Some tricks are mathematically interesting but not entertaining,” he said. “Entertainment has to be the priority. You have to find a balance of method and entertainment value.”
Baker performs a few times a month for various groups. He entertains patients at the Shepherd Center through a local chapter of Project Magic, originally founded by David Copperfield. He has performed for campus groups including the Honors Program and the Student Alumni Association’s Dinner Jackets, and he is the faculty sponsor for the Georgia Tech student magic club. He has also done fundraising shows for his children’s schools, and, in 2015, he performed at the Atlanta Science Festival, the Atlanta Science Tavern, a Princeton University freshman seminar on mathematics and magic, and his dad’s 75th birthday. He has a broad range.
As a professor, perhaps his most important audience is his own students. He takes teaching seriously — he has been honored with a University System of Georgia Regents Teaching Excellence Award and, earlier in his career, the Georgia Tech CETL/BP Junior Faculty Teaching Award — but not so seriously that he can’t find a place for magic in the classroom. He likes to incorporate tricks into his teaching and surprise students with magic in class.
“I pretty much always have a deck of cards on me,” he said.
He also brings the magic of mathematics to high school students by teaching a distance learning course on number theory and cryptography. The course, in its second year, was developed to give high school students who have completed Tech’s Distance Calculus sequence a way to continue their math education with Tech.
“Some of these students are only juniors in high school, but they’ve already completed multivariable calculus,” said Baker, who also designed the number theory course. “We could have done differential equations or something else that would continue the calculus series, but I wanted to do something different to show them that math is more than just calculus.”
Baker enjoys performing, of course, but he incorporates magic into his lessons with students in mind, striving to make his videos on mathematics as stimulating as those he once used to learn magic.
“As professors, it’s good for us to look at how we can be more engaged in the classroom,” he said. “Students like it. Ideally, the word will get out that Tech is a fun place to be, and maybe I can have something to do with that.”