In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them. Today’s edition isn’t a one-liner, but it’s still one of my favorites.
When constructing a mathematical model, sometimes certain simplifying assumptions have to be made… and sometimes these simplifications can be less than realistic. If a student complains about the unreasonableness of the simplifications, I’ll share the following story (taken from the book Absolute Zero Gravity).
Once upon a time, a group of investors decided that horse-racing could be made to pay on a scientific basis. So, they hired a team of biologists, a team of physicists, and a team of mathematicians to spend a year studying the question. At the end of the year, all three teams announced complete solutions. The investors decided to celebrate with a gala dinner where all three plans could be unveiled.
The mathematicians had the thickest report, so the chief mathematician was asked to give the first talk: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have nothing to worry about. Without describing the many details of
our proof, we can guarantee a solution to the problem you gave us — it turns out that every race is won by a least one horse. But we have been able to go beyond even this, and can show that the solution is unique: every race is won by no more than one horse!”
The biologists, who had spent the most money, went next. They were also able to show that the investors had nothing to worry about. By using the latest technology of genetic engineering, the biologists could easily set up a breeding program to produce an unbeatable racehorse, at a cost well below a million a year, in about two hundred years.
Now the investors’ hopes were riding on the physicists. The chief physicist also began by assuring them that their troubles were over. “We have perfected a method for predicting with 96 percent certainty the winner of any given race. The method is based on a very few simplifying assumptions. First, let each horse be a perfect rolling sphere… “