The second annual Math Marathon has come to an end, and though the problems got harder, after 26.2 hours, we're proud to have collectively solved 43 problems this year, earning 5 more awards and reaching level 3 on projecteuler.net. The hardest problems of the event (144 and 169) were solved by Emily Griffen, Andrew Burks, and Jesse Hyatt. Two participants, Jesse Hyatt and Adam Spontarelli, completed the full 26.2 hours, though their productive output was logarithmic.
There were several memorable moments throughout the 26.2 hour event, from 5 hour attempts at single problems, to conversations about our math educations, to the infamous correctly-guessed solution, but there's one story in particular that I'd like to delve into. At hour 24, when working together with a high school student, we had found what we thought was the solution to a problem, and in order to submit the solution to projecteuler.net, we also had to complete a captcha challenge. We talked about how captcha questions are becoming more difficult for humans as computers are better able to solve them, and I suggested that captcha questions should just be challenging math problems if someone really wants to ensure that a human is on the other end. The student responded saying, "that doesn't make any sense, computers are great at solving math problems."
This certainly isn't the first time I've heard this sentiment, despite it being grossly misguided. Computers are as good at math as hammers are at building houses, which is to say, quite poor. Computers have no idea how to find prime numbers or how to check for pallindromes or search for common factors. Computers turn on and off bits and store the resulting state, nothing more, and it's only by the intervention of human-made code that this extremely rudimentary task can be made to do what we call math. Then why bother using computers at all? Because they're able to perform these manipulations quickly, in fact very quickly. If you're skeptical of this computer-as-simple-tool perspective, try it yourself, ask your computer for the equation of a circle that passes through 840 integer coordinates.
It's understandable where this confusion comes from. Few people outside the computer science professions know what it means to program a computer, and in their interactions with computers, they often ask questions for which the solution is already known and obscured from view, in other words, someone else has already programmed the solution you're looking for. What is the sine of 22 degrees? Even your calculator can solve this one, but have you ever thought of what the algorithm might look like or even the fact that there must be some programmed calculation of the answer in the first place?
This student's common misunderstanding was a powerful reminder of why professionals need to take the time to step out of their seclusion and show others what it is they do, and why it's so important. All communities, Lynchburg included, need people who can wield computers as tools to solve difficult math problems, and more generally, this depth of understanding is needed if we hope to make any original work. These lessons can't always be found in the home or in the classroom, lessons I'm glad for the Math Marathon to have instilled in at least one person.
In addition to solving Project Euler problems as a means of recognizing math in our community, we asked local elementary school students to share stories of when they use math outside of the classroom. You can enjoy listening to some of the excellent responses below.
Thank you to all of our problem-solving participants and to everyone who sponsored and supported this event.
Dawn Thomas - U.S. Navy
Jason Thomas - CCRI
Derek Schmell - Cisco
Jesse Hyatt - EDM
Kerry Silva - Engineer
Andrew Burks - Engineer
Emily Griffen - Engineer
Luke Chapman - Randolph College
Shauna Shepard - Randolph College
Peter Sheldon - Randolph College
Todd Matthews - Framatome
Jonathan Stephens - BWXT
Greg Troyer - Framatome
Bo Browder - VES
William Henderer - VES
Aruind Misra - Framatome
Mike Coco - University of Lynchburg
Adam Spontarelli - Vector Space
Read about our first Math Marathon here.