20 December 2007

A sighting of mathematics on Jeopardy!

Today's Final Jeopardy question (alas, I didn't write down the category, but it was something like "brands"):
"Each unit in this brand, introduced in 1968, is a hyperbolic paraboloid, & they fir together for perfect storage."

The answer: What are Pringles? Two of the three contestants got it right; the third answered "What is Orville popcorn?"

I wonder if the inclusion of the "hyperbolic paraboloid" makes it harder or easier. I think it made it harder for me, because I got confused and was picturing a hyperboloid of one sheet instead. Fortunately I realized that those wouldn't fit together in any reasonable way, at least if they were all the same size. I don't know the background of the contestants tonight; I suspect most people, even most people who know enough random things to appear on Jeopardy!, would probably just filter out those words, or at best replace them with "funny shape" (because they've heard of hyperbolas and parabolas). "Funny shape" is probably the right way to think of it here; the fact that Pringles are oddly shaped is a much more salient fact about them than the precise shape, unless of course you work in a Pringle factory.

(Before you ask: No, I've never tried out for Jeopardy. Yes, I probably should.)


Aaron said...

One of my high school writing teachers was on Jeopardy once or twice, and the "hyperbolic paraboloid" definitely would have made it easier for him---he teaches math as well as English.

What I want to know is what the popcorn guy was thinking. If you asked me to name things that fit together perfectly, popcorn would not be at the top of my list!

Anonymous said...

Jeopardy is better than most TV quiz shows but sooner or later there will be question like:

How many time has Britney Spears been married?
Does Madonna have a size AAA, C, D, or E bra?

I don't even know how many times John Coltrane was married or how many children he had and I've been listening to him for about 45 years.

That's why I like Deal or No Deal; no pretense.