Located just a sphere’s throw from the Charles Street on-ramp to I-95 is the Providence headquarters of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the country’s largest mathematics organization.

Those entering the AMS building hoping to find chalkboards displaying brain-numbing equations and wild-haired mathematicians clutching slide rules will be disappointed. Only a handful of AMS workers are actual mathematicians. Most of the 125 local employees (100 in the Charles Street office and another 25 in a Pawtucket warehouse) are involved in marketing, sales, customer service, and producing nine research journals and more than 100 books annually. There is also the job of conference planning, particularly the mammoth joint AMS-MAA (Mathematics Association of American) yearly meeting, which attracts thousands of modern-day Euclids.

The AMS’ drab outside belies a spacious and well-lit interior. The nicely appointed lobby includes the white marble sculpture Torus with Cross-cap and Vector Field, by Helaman Ferguson, Ph.D., a mathematician and widely exhibited sculptor. The rear of the building looks onto the trickle of the Mosshasuck River.

The AMS, founded in New York in 1888, relocated to Providence in 1951. Despite its long local tenure, the AMS remains unknown to most Rhode Islanders. “We don’t get much walk-in business,” acknowledges public awareness officer Mike Breen. Breen’s colleague, Annette Emerson, concurs, but notes, “We once had someone come in and inquire about the odds of the lottery when the amount got up high.”

In addition to providing services to its 30,000 members, the society aims to increase math awareness. “One of our goals is to change people’s attitudes toward math,” says Emerson. The AMS’s Mathematical Moments program “promotes appreciation and understanding of the role mathematics plays in science, nature, technology, and human culture.” Locally, the organization sponsors a math contest for Rhode Island high school students in which eight competitors vie for a $1500 prize. For the last several years the event has been held at Providence College on Pi Day (pi’s value, 3.14, suggests March 14).

According to Breen, one reason behind the public’s often-negative attitude toward math is that few understand what mathematicians actually do. As an example of math in action, he cites the use of formulas for encrypting credit card information in Internet commerce. Algorithms for this purpose are “based on math discovered in the 1800s that nobody thought would have any use whatsoever,” says Breen. Most people proceeding to an on-line checkout are blissfully unaware of math’s central role in preventing the theft of their information. “When someone does a click with a mouse, they have no idea about the mathematics behind it,” notes Breen.

Gambling odds are another example. Recently, a camera crew from a science program visited the AMS and asked Breen to explain the math behind bracketing the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament.

Most AMS members are academics, either math professors or grad students, but members are also drawn from industry and government. And you don’t have to be a mathematician to participate — membership is open to anyone willing to pay the $57 introductory yearly rate.

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