Match the Scientist with the Story

[Total: 5    Average: 4.4/5]

Among the most famous people are often geniuses. It’s hard to tell whether this is the reason for the many anecdotes which are told about them, or whether this is just incidentally true. Doubts are allowed, since most scientists are quite ordinary people. But some of them are cranky and all kind of stories circulate – some are true, and some maybe an act of fantasy. An American Mathematician once replied to a story about a professor I told him: ‘I don’t think this is true. However, the point is, it could be true!’, meant story and person matched. John von Neumann was known to tell jokes at parties – in ancient Greek! So even if some of the following stories sounded invented: the point is, they could be true.

1. I sat near the table, leafing through the magazine, and began to get interested in a problem involving a relationship between two numbers. I forgot the details, but I remember the nature of the problem. Two English officers were quartered in Paris in two separate houses in a long street. The house numbers were in a special relationship to each other; the problem was to find the two numbers. It was not difficult at all; I found the solution after a few minutes of trial and error.
Me (joking): ‘Here’s a problem for you.’
He: ‘What problem?’ (He kept stirring in his pot.)
I read the problem out of the beach magazine.
He: ‘Please make a note of the solution.’ (He dictated a continued fraction)
The first term was the solution I found, each additional term represented successive solutions to the same relationship when the road was infinitely extended. I was surprised.
Me: ‘Did the solution flash like that?’
He: ‘Once I heard the problem, I knew that the solution was obviously a continued fraction; then I thought: which continued fraction? – and the answer occurred to me. It was that simple.’


2. His brother was very focused on the material things in life. Once he signed a greeting card with “…, Landlord”. So he returned the card to sender signed with “…, Brainlord.”


3. It is not quite clear whether he believed in God or was just superstitious. However, in any case he believed God will do everything to make his life tough and complicated. One day he was on a journey back home. He had to take a ship and the boat he got didn’t look very confidential. Typically, he thought, why me?
So he sent a postcard before boarding to his colleague claiming he has found the proof of Riemann’s hypothesis (conjecture).
When afterwards asked why, he replied: Well, if the ship sank the proof would have been lost but I would have become the most famous mathematician of my generation. God won’t allow this to happen. This way I only had to write another postcard in which I stated to have made a mistake.


4. Women weren’t always accepted to follow an academic career. As a local newspaper wrote about her introductory lecture, the reporter thought he had to correct its title to: ‘Problems with Cosmetic Physics.’


5. He was sitting for a protrait and became impatient the longer it lasted. The artist tried to calm him by the words: ‘If you make a mistake, then it will be covered by green grass the very next day. If I make a mistake, it will be hanging on the wall for the next hundred years.’


6. He had been invited to a party and chatted with the twenty year old hosts’ daughter. The young lady asked him about his profession, so he answered: ‘I study the world of physics.’ with a smile. ‘What?’, she replied ‘At your age yet? Well, you know, I’ve been done with that for two years now.’


7. Once his arithmetic teacher said: “I’ll ask you two questions, if you answer the first correctly, the second one is forgiven, so: ‘How many needles has a Christmas tree?’ He said without hesitation: ‘67,534’- ‘How did you get that number so quickly?’ He smiled and said: ‘Teacher, that’s the second question.’


8. Who was known for his proofs by erasure?
He wrote in the shortest time so many lines on the board that he was often forced to wipe away the oldest lines. This happened then before the listeners had finished writing.


9. Who has reported this in many of his lectures?
‘At the memorable Paris mathematicians congress in 1900, all important mathematicians were commemorated in a simple ceremony. One was the group theorist Camille Jordan, a professor at the École polytechnique, born in 1838, died on 7.11. 1898. Then, in the last rows, a gaunt figure stood up to announce to the congregation that at least the year could not be correct in stating his date of death, since he was still alive. (Jordan died on January 20, 1922 in Milan.)’


10. In an exam the following question was asked: ‘Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.’ A student replied: ‘Tie a long piece of string to the barometer’s neck, then lower the barometer from the skyscraper’s roof to the floor. The length of the cord plus the length of the barometer corresponds to the height of the building.’
This highly original response outraged the examiner so that the student was fired immediately. He appealed to his fundamental rights, on the grounds that his answer was undeniably correct. The university appointed an independent arbitrator to decide the case. The referee judged that the answer was indeed correct but did not show any perceptible knowledge of physics …
To solve the problem, it was decided to re-enroll the student and allow him six minutes to give an oral answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics. For five minutes, the student sat still, head forward, lost in thought. The referee reminded him that the time was running, to which the student responded that he had some extremely relevant answers but could not decide which one to use. When advised to hurry, he replied as follows:
‘First, you could take the barometer to the skyscraper’s roof, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the bottom.

The height of the building can be calculated using the formula  h-equation

However, the barometer would be gone!

Or, if the sun is shining, you could measure the height of the barometer, raise it, and measure the length of its shadow. Then measure the length of the shadow of the skyscraper, then it’s easy to calculate the height of the skyscraper using proportional arithmetic.
But if you wanted to be highly scientific, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and let it swing like a pendulum, first on the ground and then on the roof of the skyscraper.

The height corresponds to the deviation of the gravitational recovery force  t-equation

Or, if the skyscraper has an external emergency staircase, it would be easiest to climb up there, check the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, and add up.
But if you only want a boring and orthodox solution, then of course you can use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground and convert the difference in millibar to calculate the height of the building. But as we are constantly being asked to practice the independence of the mind and apply scientific methods, it would undoubtedly be much easier to knock on the janitor’s door and say, ‘If you want a nice new barometer, I’ll give this one to you, provided you tell me the height of this skyscraper.’



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  1. 256bits
    256bits says:

    Last question was the one most interesting.
    Human behavior at its finest; ( and its not so finest )
    Koodos to the student who had thought of mind to analyze the problem from a number of angles.
    Teachers take note!

  2. Duplex
    Duplex says:

    No. 10 made my day. The barometer. A wonderful example of the abounding creative talent many brilliant scientists have; to quickly produce a number of parallel solutions or interpretations of a problem.

    It also illustrates what we lab rats sometimes call kindergarten solution: Ask yourself if there is a super easy solution and try it first. Everything does not have to be perfect from the outset. It is enough that it is "sufficiently good" to achieve the “boundary condition”. Whether it's a prototype or a pilot study.

    It's not easy to guess who that brilliant student was, bored by the simple exam question. Einstein, Pauli, Fermi or Bohr? Four clever Nobel laureates in physics.

  3. Fewmet
    Fewmet says:

    A mere two out of ten.

    I knew the Ramanujan story (than you, Douglas Hofstadter). I had heard the story in #10 without the claim that it was a famous person. I think I would have guessed correctly on #8 if I had connected that János Lajos Neumann von Margitta is John von Neuman.

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