F&M Professor Talks Space Shapes

Claire Jeantheau ’21, Staff Writer

A mathematics professor posited the potential of a three-dimensional, measurable shape of the universe in a recent lecture at Dickinson.

Barbara Nimershiem, associate professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College, delivered the talk, titled “The Shape (?) of Space,” as part of the weekly math and computer science (cs)chats series. This chat centered around how one might go about defining a universal shape—which, unlike the sphere of a planet, presents unique challenges.

“With 2-D shapes, we can step out and look at them,” Nimershiem said. “We can’t step outside the universe and look back in.” 

Nimershiem’s talk was divided into three parts, with the first two sections, “what do we mean by ‘the shape of space’?” and “possible shapes of space,” delving into topology, or the mathematical study of shapes. Attendees took part in interpretive activities with two- and three-dimensional objects, including playing tic-tac-toe on flat paper rolled into a cylinder and rotating shapes printed on cubes. They also viewed a short video which simulated how an object might move through the potential spaces.

In Nimershiem’s third portion of her lecture she addressed “how might we know” the validity of these shapes. She spoke on cosmic microwave background radiation, which are particles believed to be remainders from the formation of the universe. According to Nimershiem, research has shown that the particles have different temperatures and these can be used to help judge spatial boundaries of the universe.

“Maybe, just maybe,” she said, “there’s some markings out there that would tell us where the walls [of the shape] are.”

Hieu Le ’19, a physics and mathematics double major, was drawn to the talk because of his own work with topology, the study of geometric relations and spatial proportions.

“I did research on this, so it’s not too much of a surprise,” Le said. He wished that there could have been “a bit more theory,” referring to the abstract nature of defining the shape of the universe, but added that these unknowns are what make the field “super fascinating.”

Le’s background in topology helped David Richeson, professor of mathematics and organizer of the fall 2018 math and cs chats series, bring Nimershiem to campus.

“I’ve known Barbara [Nimershiem] for a while—I study topology, and met her through that,” Richeson said. “I’m organizing the colloquiums this semester and decided to invite her. There was a piece [written] on her on one of those [topology] websites about her giving this talk.” The interest of Le, who took a topology course and regularly brought up the subject, was also key in Richeson’s decision.

Aidan Pidgeon ’20, who studies physics and astronomy, chose to come to the talk based on its links to his own field of study.

“I think I came because I saw a relationship to cosmology, which is something very interesting that goes over my head,” Pidgeon said. “It’s interesting to see a mathematical perspective on the same idea.” 

Richeson was satisfied with the student turnout for the event and believed that the timing of common hour enabled interested students to attend. 

“[It’s a] nice time of day for us to have our colloquium—we’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said. 

“The Shape (?) of Space” was held on Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 12 p.m. in Tome 115. Lectures for the math and cs chats colloquium series take place on Tuesdays during common hour and are sponsored by their titular departments.