## 3 Questions to Determine if You’re a Math Geek

Yesterday morning on Cooley and Kevin, a local sports radio show, the hosts and producer each posited three questions that could be used to determine if someone is a real man. (The implication being, if you can’t answer all three, then you ain’t.) I didn’t like that many of the questions focused on sports, but I’m not surprised. I was, however, surprised by some of the non-sports questions. What do you think?

Thom Loverro (guest host):

• Who wrote The Old Man and The Sea?
• What was the name of the bar owned by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca?
• Name three heavyweight boxing champions.

Kevin Sheehan (regular host):

• Who was Clark Kent’s alter ego?
• Name one of the two fighters in the “Thrilla in Manila.”
• Who won the first Super Bowl?

Greg Hough (producer):

• Name one James Bond movie and the actor who played James Bond in it.
• Who did Rocky beat to win the title?
• With what team did Brett Favre win a Super Bowl?

During the rounds of trivia, Loverro remarked, “If you can name three heavyweight champs but haven’t seen Casablanca, then you’re still in puberty.”

What three questions would you ask to determine if someone is a real woman?

One possible question might be, “Name two of the three actresses who tortured their boss in the movie Nine to Five.” Then I remembered that women don’t play the same stupid games that men do. And I realized that strolling too far down that path will lead to hate mail or a slap or both. So, let’s move on.

It also made me wonder if there are three questions you could ask to determine if someone is a real math geek. Sure, you could use the Math Purity Test, but that’s 63 questions. A 95% reduction in the number of items would be most welcome.

So, here are my three questions:

• What’s the eighth digit (after the decimal point) of π?
• What’s the punch line to, “Why do programmers confuse Halloween and Christmas?”
• Name seven mathematical puzzles that have entered popular culture.

And my honorable mention:

• What’s the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

One of my initial questions was, “Have you ever told a math joke for your own amusement, knowing full well that your audience either wouldn’t understand it or wouldn’t find it funny?” But I tossed that one, because it’s a yes/no question that was personal, not factual. Eventually, which questions were kept and which were discarded came down to one simple rule: If nothing was lost by replacing a question with, “Are you a math dork?” then it should be rejected.

How’d I do? Opinions welcome. Submit new or revised questions for determining one’s math geekiness in the comments.

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• 1. xander  |  July 15, 2016 at 12:37 pm

A1: Who cares? We all know that tau is the better constant.

A2: Because Dec 25 = Oct 31.

A3: This one is interesting to think about, and depends, I think, on what you mean by “puzzle.” There are several interesting mathematical problems that seem to have entered popular culture (even if people don’t really know what they are). For instance, Fermat’s last theorem, or the Riemann hypothesis. One might also argue that results like the Pythagorean theorem or the quadratic formula are the solutions to mathematical puzzles, and they certainly appear in popular culture (though, to be fair, generally as examples of *really* difficult mathematics).

There are also problems that come from popular culture, such as the Monty Hall problem or the Futurama brain-swapping problem (though with such poor ratings, is Futurama really “popular” culture?). And what about Rubik’s cubes or the Towers of Hanoi—do either of those count?

Then there are some straight up puzzles that have appeared, such as the modular arithmetic problem in Die Hard, and I feel like river crossing problems (you have a fox, a goat, and a cabbage that you want to get across a river…) are well enough recognized that they must appear in popular culture somewhere (though I am not sure that I could come up with a specific reference on my own). Can I include logic puzzles like the paradox “This sentence is a lie” that fries the brains of Mudd’s androids in Star Trek? Or problems of the type “You come to a fork in the road, and are confronted with two people, one of whom is a liar and the other a truth teller…”? Chess problems also show up quite a bit, though that might be stretching things a bit.

—–

As to extra questions, what about “What is your favorite number?” There is no wrong answer, but you can learn a lot from a person based on their answer (mine is log(2)/log(3)). On the other hand, it is more personal than factual, so perhaps fails to meet your criterion.

Another thought is something along the lines of “Name m of the Clay Institute Millennium Prize Problems (bonus points for identifying solved problems),” or “Name n of Hilbert’s 23 Problems (again, bonus points for identifying still unsolved problems),” also seem to fit the style of the original questions well.

• 2. venneblock  |  July 20, 2016 at 12:41 am

Wow, lots to think about there, Xander.

I agree, the question of a person’s favorite number can be rather revealing. But like you said, it violates my rule because it doesn’t have a factual answer. Which is kind of weird, because I’m generally opposed to single-answer, there’s-only-one-way-to-do-it questions. But I just don’t know how to take an answer to the favorite number question and decide if you’re mathy or not. I mean, take your answer, for example… it could either be the favorite of a very deep mathematical thinker, or it could be the offering of a 13-year-old who just wants to screw with his teacher. I suspect (know, actually) that you’re the former, but I have no idea how I’d rank that answer from someone I didn’t know as well.

As for the puzzles, I would eliminate most of those on your list as problems, not puzzles. Semantics, I know. But I was thinking more of things like KenKen, Sudoku, Nurikabe, or even Rubik’s Cube. I wasn’t thinking of P = NP or the Riemann hypothesis. Though (1) your answers definitely indicate that you’re geeky enough and (2) I think you’ve shown that my question isn’t very good. I prefer your question about Hilbert’s Problems. Huzzah!

• 3. Quiz: Are You a Real Math Geek? | Science News  |  July 25, 2016 at 7:58 am

[…] other day Patrick Vennebush of the blog Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks shared a three-question quiz he wrote to determine whether someone is a real math geek. Here are his […]

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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