I was recently reminded of my all-time favorite Final Jeopardy clue (I can’t remember the exact wording), which showed up many (>15) years ago:

This is the only positive number such that adding it to itself and multiplying it by itself give the same result.

The question, “What is 2?”, is a no-brainer for anyone who’s played with numbers, and I’ve played with numbers a lot, so I knew the question. What struck me, though, was that **nobody** got it right. Two people guessed 1, and one guessed 1.5. 1.5?! This is why we tell our students to check their work.

OK, so three Jeopardy contestants can’t do arithmetic in 30 seconds under bright lights with millions of people watching them. I can forgive that. (Maybe they’d have had better luck with this one.) But it got me wondering about how often math appears as a Jeopardy category. Luckily, there’s the J! Archive, which has just about every clue from every show ever aired. And it’s searchable! So here’s the list of all Jeopardy clues containing the string “math”. (Note that this includes the occasional clue with a word such as “aftermath” or “Mathew”. Also, my favorite clue isn’t in the archive – I said *almost* every clue.) Here are a few good ones:

- (Mathematics, $1000): He never revealed the proof of his last theorem, but only hinted at it in a margin note. (answer)
- (Math Terms, $600): It describes the shortest line between 2 points on a surface, or a dome made with the least possible material. (answer) (This is pretty sophisticated, don’t you think?)
- (Milestones in Math, $600): This Persian poet’s work on algebra included systematic solutions to cubic equations. (answer, and his Rubaiyat)

Of course, once I’d found a searchable archive of Jeopardy clues, I immediately looked for my favorite category (no, it’s not Math): Stupid Answers. A few examples:

- Oddly, this piece of furniture was never built for the throne room at Neuschwanstein Castle (the throne)
- In the musical “The Phantom of the Opera”, the Phantom writes one of these, called “Don Juan Triumphant”. (an opera)
- He formed United Artists with Griffith, Pickford & Fairbanks & in 1915 lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. (Charlie Chaplin)

I love Jeopardy. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of just how much I don’t know. But I enjoy when they decide to include math clues, because at least I have a chance.

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Tags: Jeopardy, math trivia

This entry was posted on September 5, 2008 at 12:07 am and is filed under Math in Pop Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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September 5, 2008 at 5:15 am |

The “shortest line…on a surface” answer is made much easier by their use of the word “dome”.

I first thought this must have been a Jeopardy question from the 1970s, when Buckminster Fuller’s ideas were fairly widely discussed in the public sphere (or at least they were in California, where I was living at the time). In that cultural context, the word “dome” seems pretty likely to trigger the right answer by free association.

Checking the J! archive, though, reveals that this question was aired May 16, 1997, and was only worth $600, so they didn’t think it all that hard.

September 6, 2008 at 10:34 pm |

I remember my first Final Jeopardy correct question. The answer was: they were the only two confederate states without Atlantic or Gulf Coast. Or something like that. It must have been mid to late 70s.