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Garth SundemRSS Feed of this column.

Garth Sundem is a Science, Math and general Geek Culture writer, TED speaker, and author of books including Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish the Lab-Tested Secrets of Surfing, Dating, Dieting... Read More »

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Throughout history, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and PhD students lacking funding for actual research have turned to the thought experiment in hopes of discovering something publishable, thereby retaining tenure and/or attracting the admiration of comely undergraduates.



The best thought experiments throw light into dark corners of the universe and also provide other scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and destitute Phd students a way to kill time while waiting for the bus.



Below is a classic thought experiment, pillaged from my book The Geeks' Guide to World Domination (Be Afraid, Beautiful People). I'll post a new thought experiment each day this week.

Ship of Theseus
Throughout history, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and Phd students lacking funding for actual research have turned to the thought experiment in hopes of discovering something publishable, thereby retaining tenure and/or attracting the admiration of comely undergraduates. The best thought experiments throw light into dark corners of the universe and also provide other scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and destitute Phd students a way to kill time while waiting for the bus.

Below is a classic thought experiment, pillaged from my book The Geeks' Guide to World Domination (Be Afraid, Beautiful People). I'll post a new thought experiment each day this week.


Maxwell’s Demon
  Tycho Brahe was a sixteenth-century Danish, astronomer, astrologer and alchemist, most famous as the mentor of Johannes Kepler. In 1566 after a rousing night of drinking, Tycho lost a good part of his nose in a duel. Tycho was also the patron of whom he believed to be a clairvoyant dwarf and kept a tame moose, which died after consuming an enormous quantity of beer and falling down the stairs.

Be warned: this article deals primarily with shark attacks, the lottery, beer, and how to get a date using math. Is it a good decision to keep reading? Unfortunately, the answer is "you need to keep reading to find out."

Sound irrational? Good—your massively irrational mind should have no problem with it, then.

Consider this: every year when the Discovery Channel broadcasts "Shark Week" visits to Florida beaches decline. Presumably, the network's programming makes the waters no less safe (assuming sharks are not, in fact, empowered by cable television). However, after watching a week of kicking legs seen from below, the idea of shark attack is refreshed in our minds and we choose not to offer ourselves as bait.

This phenomenon is known as an availability heuristic — a heuristic being a rule-of-thumb. Our rationality is subverted by easily available sensationalist images.

It's been just over three years since I got married, and I remember thinking (amid the nearly debilitating fear that we would run out of alcohol at our mountain cabin wedding and thus trap our families in a scene from The Shining) that it would be wonderful to finally be free forever from the intrigue and confusion of dating.

You can't fault the optimism.

Now, through the lens of hindsight, I realize that I should have known that dating and even cohabitating were only warm-ups for the big dance.

Due to a recent whirlwind bout of touring, I was excited to do nothing but plunk on my couch with the dog and watch many, many hours of pro sports. Ski videos would be nice, but really what I was looking for was a good cricket match — completely incomprehensible and hopefully extending across multiple days. Contract bridge and international chess competed for close-second.

This has happened before but, if you have small children and/or a pregnant spouse, you know your ability to sink into a vegetative stupor is tempered by relationship politics. This, I think, is not an issue relevant to me alone.