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!

]]>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.

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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.

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