Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Numbers Games

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring 538's Riddler, economist and game theorist Dr Oliver Roeder. Dr Roeder was formerly with the Brennan Center for Justice and has recently released his book The Riddler: Fantastic Puzzles from FiveThirtyEight.

Dr Roeder began his lecture with a description of the Rhind papyrus, a three-thousand year old Egyptian collection of mathematical exercises which begins with a wonderful description of mathematics as “The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.” He then continued to extol the modern masters of mathematical puzzles, luminaries such as Lewis Carroll, ErnÅ‘ Rubik, Tetsuya Miyamoto, and a man he singled out for especial accolades- Martin Gardner, who long wrote the mathematical puzzle column in Scientific American (and whose The Annotated Alice occupies a place of prominence on my bookshelf). Gardner popularized such math puzzles as tangrams, rep-tiles, and Escher's artworks.

Seeking to follow in Mr Gardner's footsteps, Dr Roeder has brought to the public such mathematical puzzles as planetary guardian, Laser Larry, the lonesome king, and chasing squircles. He described the different puzzle-solving cohorts as 'empirical solvers, theoretical solvers, and Jeff'.

He then launched into Riddler mode, testing the audience's puzzle-solving acumen. He started off with a classic in order to get our brains limbered up... the two jug puzzle featured in the second 'Die Hard' movie, which I believe was titled 'Dier Harder':

Then he had us split up into groups to engage in a game- how to allocate to use a one billion dollar budget to build a spacecraft which could reach an extrasolar object before spacecrafts built by rivals... the choices for components were top-notch American components, cheaper Russian components, and a finite amount of xenon gas which could improve performance. There were a couple of approaches- one being a blend of components, the other being to buy up all of the xenon (Dr Roeder joked that being a dickhead was advantageous here).

Then the audience was given a task to pick a number, with the two lowest unique numbers qualifying the respondents to compete onstage. The winners chose five and twelve, and were brought onstage. They were given a random number between 0 and 1, and given the opportunity to choose another number, with the one getting the number closest to one getting a prize. Both contestants were given numbers below .5, both chose to get another number. When asked to explain why they chose a second "draw", both indicated that they did so because they were below the halfway mark. Dr Roeder noted that the optimal cutoff is the golden ratio minus one with reader Christopher Mullan illustrating the problem with a graphic representation he dubbed the Pringle of Probability.

All told, it was a night of fun and games, reminiscent of Matt Parker's standup mathematics routine. Dr Roeder was a demanding, though not stern, taskmaster. I'm primarily a biology nerd, so having to exercise the mathematical portion of the brain was a good change of pace.

Kudos go to Dr Roeder, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House- this was a night of nerdy fun and games, and nobody decided to be a dickhead, no matter how advantageous it would be. For a taste of the sort of puzzles Dr Roeder deals in, here's a good video:

Pour yourself a beverage and join the Secret Solvers Club.

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