Jason’s Deli is one of my family’s favorite places for an inexpensive meal. Recently, I saw the following placard at our table advertising their salad bar:

The small print says “Math performed by actual rocket scientist”; let’s see how the rocket scientist actually did this calculation.

The advertisement says that there are 50+ possible ingredients; however, to actually get a single number of combinations, let’s say there are exactly 50 ingredients. Lettuce will serve as the base, and so the 5 ingredients that go on top of the lettuce will need to be chosen from the other 49 ingredients.

Also, order is not important for this problem… for example, it doesn’t matter if the tomatoes go on first or last if tomatoes are selected for the salad.

Therefore, the number of possible ingredients is

,

or the number in the 5th column of the 49th row of Pascal’s triangle. Rather than actually finding the 49th row of Pascal’s triangle by direct addition, it’s simpler to use factorials:

.

Under the assumption that there are exactly 50 ingredients, the rocket scientist actually got this right.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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