Q. What is the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group’s aim?

A. In redistricting, one of the principles that’s taken seriously by courts is that districts should be compact. The U.S. Constitution does not say that, but many state constitutions do, and it’s taken as a kind of general principle of how districts ought to look.

But nobody knows exactly what compactness means. People just have the idea that it means the shape shouldn’t be too weird, shouldn’t be too eccentric; it should be a kind of reasonable shape. Lots of people have taken a swing at that over the years. Which definition you choose actually has stakes. It changes what maps are acceptable and what maps aren’t. If you look at the Supreme Court history, what you’ll see is that a lot of times, especially in the ’90s, the court would say, Look, some shapes are obviously too bizarre but we don’t know how to describe the cutoff. How bizarre is too bizarre? We don’t know; that sounds hard.

Q. It’s like how they define obscenity.

A. Exactly. When I started thinking about this, I was surprised to see that even though there were different mathematical attempts at a definition, you don’t ever see mathematicians testifying in court about it. So our first aim was to think like mathematicians about compactness and look at all the definitions that already exist, and compare them and try to prove theorems about the relationships between the definitions.

What courts have been looking for is one definition of compactness that they can understand, that we can compute, and that they can use as a kind of go-to standard. I don’t have any illusions that we’re going to settle that debate forever, but I think we can make a contribution to the debate.

See also her lecture for the Mathematical Association of America’s Distinguished Lecture Series: