Archive for the ‘Math in Popular Books’ Category

30% Hotter

October 5, 2009

RaftI’m reading The Memorist by M. J. Rose, a book which is in the same 100+ chapter genre as The DaVinci Code but which doesn’t sport its own diet.

Early on, some criminal-guy leads some journalist-terrorist-wanna-be to an underground area beneath Vienna.  After showing him the area beneath the main concert hall, they head back towards the outside world only to discover slashes in one of their rafts — a raft that might have looked a lot like the one in the picture above except that it was in a cave.  And was inflatable.

But at any rate, they needed those rafts because there was an underground lake that was really hot.  Now here’s the confusing part:

The water was thirty percent hotter than the human body’s temperature thanks to the geothermal heat under the lake’s bed.  If you tried to swim across you’d be boiled to death.

What, exactly, does 30% hotter than the human body’s temp mean?  My first thought was that the reference point should be absolute zero, or -459.7°F.  This would make the water (1.3)(98.6+459.7)-459.7, which simplifies to about 266°F.  This matches the line about scalding, but doesn’t quite fit later on when journalist-guy pulls the remaining raft from criminal-guy and dunks him into the water:

For a second David wondered if Wassong could somehow make it out.   No, he knew that was impossible.  He knew, because Wassong had warned him — no one survived the firewater.  Wassong was splashing wildly, displacing a circle of water around him.  He continued thrashing for fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, forty, and then all movement ceased.  Hans Wassong lay still, floating facedown in the boiling lake, his glasses bobbing beside him.

Despite the reference to boiling, I’m pretty sure that splashing would be kept to a minimum if the water were really 266°F.  So I don’t think that’s it.  Maybe, since we’re in Vienna, we’re supposed to use Celsius for our reference point.  The body’s temperature is 37°C, so the lake would then be (1.3)(37°C)=48.1°C, or about 118.6°F.  That’s hot, but not really hot enough to kill so quickly — the Honeywell Burn Chart says an adult could swim for 10 minutes before getting 3rd degree burns.   So that’s not it.

Well then, maybe we should use Fahrenheit, which would lead to (1.3)(98.6°F), or about 128°F.  Now we’re getting somewhere:  the 40 seconds corresponds pretty much exactly to how long before criminal-guy gets 3rd degree burns all over his body, and that’s going to make it tough for him to escape.

I confess, I’ve been waiting to see if this guy is really dead or if he’s going to appear at the last minute.  Nothing says, “See ya later!” like a claim that no one could have survived.

Traveling the Lower 48

April 22, 2009

I just started reading The English Major by Jim Harrison.  It’s about Cliff, a retired high school teacher and farmer, whose wife has just left him.  He  decides to travel to the lower 48 states in the US using a puzzle as a  guide.

US Map

He starts in Michigan, then goes to Wisconsin, and in Minnesota he hooks up with a former student of his, Marybelle,who decides to ride with him through North Dakota to Montana. At this point Cliff relates:

After breakfast in Wahpeton and before she fell asleep Marybelle had said it would be nice to do some north and south zigzagging on the way to Bozeman.  I didn’t say anything but this distressed me as I had intended to enter and exit each state exactly once.

When I read this, I was immediately distracted by the question of whether or not that was even possible.

As a follow up question, if Cliff had started anywhere he wanted instead of his hometown, how close could he end to where he started?

For reference here’s a map of the United States, with Hawai‘i and Alaska conveniently resized and located in Mexico. Click for a bigger version.


How Is Math Like Ballroom Dancing?

September 23, 2008

Over the summer I read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I loved it, and not just because Stephenson includes real mathematics and gets it right. It’s also really funny. One of my favorite passages is a 5-page description of one of the main characters, Randy, eating cereal and watching a video in an attempt to learn ballroom dancing for his date later the same evening. I won’t reproduce the whole thing (p475-9 in the hardcover version), but here’s the part that has to do with mathematics (i.e., the word “math” appears near the end):

On the TV, the dancing instructors have finished demonstrating the basic steps. It is almost painful to watch them doing the compulsories, because when they do, they must willfully forget everything they know about advanced ballroom dancing, and dance like persons who have suffered strokes, or major brain injuries, that have wiped out not only the parts of their brains responsible for fine motor skills, but also blown every panel in the aesthetic-discretion module. They must, in other words, dance the way their beginning pupils like Randy dance…

At this point in the videotape he always wonders if he’s inadvertently set his beer down on the fast-forward button, or something, because the dancers go straight from their vicious Randy parody into something that obviously qualifies as advanced dancing. Randy knows that the steps they are doing are nominally the same as the basic steps demonstrated earlier, but he’s damned if he can tell which is which, once they go into their creative mode. There is no recognizable transition, and that is what pisses Randy off, and has always pissed him off, about dancing lessons. Any moron can learn to trudge through the basic steps. That takes all of half an hour. But when that half-hour is over, dancing instructors always expect you to take flight and go through one of those miraculous time-lapse transitions that happen only in Broadway musicals and begin dancing brilliantly. Randy supposes that people who are lousy at math feel the same way: the instructor writes a few simples equations on the board, and ten minutes later he’s deriving the speed of light in a vacuum.

You can read more about the cereal eating here, but you should really just go read the whole book.

Food Math

August 7, 2008

I saw this Sonic commercial last night. I am proud to say that my guessing skills are somewhat better than the guy in the passenger seat.

Note that this is unrelated to Bistromath, but it does give a convenient excuse for linking to it.

Fun with Bases

July 21, 2008

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the computer Deep Thought gives the Answer to the Life, the Universe, and Everything as 42. Google calculator gives the same result.* (Of course, that’s not much use without knowing what the question is.) At the end of the later book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a caveman pulls out scrabble tiles and forms the question, “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”

Of course, the universe is an imperfect place, and six times nine is actually 54. At least in Base Ten. In Base Eleven, 6×9= 4A (where A stands for the digit TEN, since fifty-four is 4 elevens and A=ten ones left over). And in Base Twelve, 6×9=46, since fifty-four is 4 twelves and 6 ones left over. And finally, Lo and Behold, in Base Thirteen, 6×9=42 since fifty-four is 4 thirteens and 2 ones left over.

So maybe the universe isn’t such a wacky place after all! Maybe Douglas Adams was secretly suggesting that we should all be using Base Thirteen. Or maybe not: when Douglas Adams was asked about this, he supposedly replied, “I may be a sorry case, but I don’t write jokes in Base 13.”

*Seriously. Try typing in “answer to life, the universe, and everything” all lowercase.

Thanks to Anya for pointing this out!

Summer Reading

July 10, 2008

Have any of you read Jodi Picoult? I confess, I hadn’t heard of her until just a couple months ago, when I noticed a slew of her books in the store and, reading the backs, thought they sounded interesting. Then I discovered that she’d written Nineteen Minutes (a fictional account of a school shooting), which I had in fact heard of but hadn’t read. So I read one of her books. And then another. And then another.

In other words, I’ve found that I like her books a lot: they’re a mixture of what I think of as summer reading [books that you can spend days reading while lounging out on the porch, or inside on the couch if it’s not actually summer] and genuine ethical conflict. And to my surprise, I’ve encountered quite a bit of math in passing. Nothing central to the plot, but when was the last time I found a novel that mentioned cuisenaire rods? Or tangrams? Or algebra jokes?

Way to go Jodi!

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

March 2, 2008

ted_geisel_nywts.jpgIn honor of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s 104th birthday today, I thought I’d do a post on (fiction) books that have some math in them. But when I started to think about what I’d write, I quickly became overwhelmed. Should I mention The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster? What about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, a novel written from the perspective of a mathematical 15-year old who is also autistic? And then there is The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which I haven’t actually read but which came highly recommended. I started collecting titles of books with a-little-to-a-lot of math in them about two years ago, and the list could be a web site in and of itself. Click to read some lists by other people, plus my plug for the Dr. Suess-style science books for kids!

Book Reviews

February 5, 2008

Neither of these are recent, but they’re pretty entertaining. If you’ve never seen them before, you really ought to take a look. Enjoy.

A “review” of Dummit and Foote’s Abstract Algebra. (This will be funnier if you’ve taken an abstract algebra course before.)

The Amazon page for A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates by the RAND Corporation has nearly 100 reviews, from humorous to downright hilarious. My favorite is the one about “updating” the text to use hexadecimal digits instead of decimal, with an example of the conversion.

And speaking of the Prisoner’s Dilemma…

November 22, 2007

My favorite example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in literature occurs in the book Golem in the Gears by Piers Anthony (book 9 in the Xanth series).  In this book, a character examines the best strategy for playing the game multiple times, with different people (or beings, as the case may be).