Number Munching


There need to be more math-inspired food holidays, and together you and I can make that happen.

Wasn’t Pi Day fun? Even though this year (3/14/15 at 9:26:53) was the Pi Day of the Century, March 14th is a great excuse to eat pie in any year. But, just as they say that there are 10 types of people in this world: those who understand binary and those who don’t, the world is also divided into those on team pie and team cake.

As much as I love the number pi, I am decidedly a cake girl. It was the source of great friction in a relationship once, even after I baked a Cherpumple to bridge the gap with my pie guy. (A Cherpumple is a cherry pie baked inside a chocolate cake on top of a pumpkin pie baked inside a spice cake on top of an apple pie baked inside a vanilla cake. It is a foot tall, weighs 18lbs and feeds about forty. Epic.)My Cherpumple

So what other math-food holidays can we celebrate, preferably without sparking dessert wars?

We can stick to the irrational number world and celebrate “e Day”. Since e is the natural log, we could eat ants on a log, cheese logs, yule logs (the cake kind) and basically any other roulade. But e is approximated as 2.7, and February 7th has come and gone.

Famous ratios might be the answer, like the Pythagorean Theorem’s “a squared plus b squared equals c squared” relationship between the sides of a right triangle. This gives us the classic 3:4:5 triangle ratio, so we could have eaten triangular foods (pizza, baklava, candy corn) on March 4, 2005 (3/4/5) or June 8th, 2010 (6/8/10). Unfortunately, Pythagorean Theorem days require all three numbers, and even though the next one is September 12th, 2015 (9/12/15), I’M HUNGRY NOW.

Square root dates have the same need for three numbers that makes them rare – such as 2/2/4, 3/3/9, and next 4/4/16 – and besides, do we want an entire meal made up of root vegetables?

There is always the Fibonacci Sequence (my personal favorite), which runs 1,1,2,3,5,8,13… etc., adding the preceding two numbers into infinity. This number is traditionally celebrated on November 23rd (11/23), but could also be feted on 1/1/23 when it comes. Since Fibonacci formulated the sequence after a thought experiment about mating bunnies, we should all make like Elmer Fudd and hunt some wabbit.

Or, since the Fibonacci Sequence also defines the Golden Ratio – another irrational number, roughly 1.618 – we can celebrate the hell out of it on January 6, 2018. The rich can eat foods dusted in gold flakes and gold powder; the rest of us can meet up at McDonald’s.

Still, these dates are years away. I want math-inspired food NOW!

Our answer is the humble mole. Not the blind, hole-digging insectivore, nor the irritating, cancer-threatening skin growth; I mean the massive constant defined by the number of molecules in 12 grams of Carbon-12 – specifically 6.022 times 10 to the 23rd power.

Think about it: a mole is a unit of measurement in chemistry, and mole (“mo-lay”) is a delicious Mexican sauce made with chocolate and spices, so the food tie-in is natural and fantastic. Plus, the number of things in one mole of anything (6.022 x 10^23) is also known as Avogadro’s Constant; ‘Avogadro’ is so close to ‘avocado’ it’s like the food gods are daring us NOT to do this. A mole dish with avocado? Yes, please!

Finally, Amedeo Avogadro (for whom the number is named) was an Italian Count born in 1776 (freedom!) who studied and practiced law (litigiousness!) before inheriting his father’s title and enough money to retire and dick around with science (financial privilege!). What’s more American than that? This should absolutely be a national holiday.

Oh, sure, I know people already celebrate Mole Day on October 23rd at 6:02, but just as some people celebrate Pi Day on July 22nd (because it can also be approximated as 22/7 and Europeans write their dates day/month), we can certainly have two Mole Days. And, yes, it would make more sense to do it on June 2nd instead of June 22nd, but I missed that day, so screw it.

JOIN ME on June 22nd at 10:23 (am or pm is your choice) in eating a delicious Mexican dish of any type so long as it is slathered in mole sauce and accented with avocado.

It will be MOLE-ecular gastronomy at its finest. Bon appetit!

Pompous and Circumstantial


Natalie Portman gave the Class Day address at our mutual alma mater last week, and despite her nerves she did a ‘Professional’ job (okay, I’ll stop). It was refreshing to hear her recount the experience of first setting foot in such an overwhelming and impressive place full of overwhelming and impressive people – and comforting to learn she made many of the same mistakes I did.

The world is full of brazenly confident people, and Harvard Yard has more than its fair share. For Natalie, there were five different peers who announced on day one that they would be President someday; I only remember two in my first days, but we both believed all of them from the sheer force of their conviction. Bold declarations are impressive, and those of us not in the habit of making our own are inclined to be won over by their swagger.

(This is the only explanation for a particularly disastrous dating choice of mine freshman year; he told me he was the smartest, funniest guy in the room and I believed him.)

As I quickly learned, though, there is no guarantee of any substance behind the bluster. For every Babe Ruth who backs up a called shot there are a dozen Donald Trumps who are full of shit.

Both Natalie and I reacted to our bold new world in the same way: by letting it intimidate us. We accepted these people’s brazen visions of the world, their standards for greatness, and their definitions of success. Instead of asking ourselves what we wanted out of school or life, we worried about not being good enough – and once someone else is allowed to make up the rules, there really is no way to come out on top. Just ask any six-year-old.

In this past year, I have been drawing inspiration from Albert Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis” (1905), in which he published four papers each of which was a major breakthrough in its own right. One of the recurring themes in discussions of his unparalleled achievement is the complete unwillingness Einstein had to ever accept any unproven principle as a given. Because he refused to believe time was an immutable constant simply because everyone else assumed it was and no one had seen evidence to the contrary, he was free to explore his own imaginings and now the world understands relativity. You’re welcome, world.

When we free ourselves from belief in how things are “supposed to” be, we open the door to far deeper understanding and far greater achievement. As Natalie put it in her speech, we should remain ignorant of the limitations the world has assumed for us. Or, as that six-year-old would put it, “Sez who?”

Look to the bumblebee for inspiration. For centuries, the world of physics expended a great deal of energy and hot air over the fact that a short, fat, fuzzy insect with stubby wings should not be able to fly. And yet they fly anyway. Mainly, as mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah pointed out, because a bumblebee does not understand the laws of thermodynamics. It simply doesn’t know it can’t fly.*

[*Also, as has recently been determined, it doesn’t flap its wings up and down like other flying things but rather front-to-back with a slight tilt, as though treading water. This creates mini hurricanes above each wing, with low-pressure centers that make it easier to stay aloft. But “because of ignorance” is more romantic.]

If Forrest Gump taught us anything, it is that if we dive into that box of chocolates listening to cries of “beware the cherry cordial” and “butter creams are the best”, we will very likely be disappointed, but if we go in hoping for a sweet treat, we will probably get one. At least I think that was the point.

In other words, don’t believe everything people say (especially about themselves), don’t believe everything you think (especially about yourself), and – to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s commencement address at Wake Forest – define your own standards for success and happiness. Then go for them. Everyone else can go suck a cherry cordial.