Very Difficult Maths


With a busy office full of people I often plug myself into some music and headphones in order not to distract or be distracted by those around me. However today I hadn’t got to that point when I heard Lucy ask our current university placement Laura to help her with a problem…

“I want to drive around a number of schools to drop off leaflets and I wonder if you could just work out for me the quickest route to go between the schools?” Laura, great enthusiastic placement that she is, said “yes of course”. Lucy then added “It’s a problem I’ve tried to work out in the past but never really found a good solution”. She needn’t have been embarrassed about not having found a good solution, she had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the more famously complex problems in mathematics. The problem for Laura is that factorials quickly get involved. Each new school added to the list increases the number of possible routes between schools exponentially. Very quickly the problem becomes so complex that if Laura could program a computer to check all the possible solutions that computer could still be working on a solution not just when she’s gone to the kitchen an made us all a cup of tea using the world’s lowest powered kettle, but when the universe has grown tired of waiting and put out the lights. In fact if Laura can come across a mathematical method for resolving if this class of problem will ever be solvable in a ‘reasonable’ length of time then she could claim a $1,000,000 prize from the Clay Mathematical Institute. How do I know all this? I have just listened to a podcast all about P vs NP the conundrum of these problems on which a lot, including all current internet security hangs (I love In Our Time).

When I shared this information with my work colleagues oh how we laughed. Then I plugged into Thomas Tallis

2 thoughts on “Very Difficult Maths

  1. SOLUTION = (L + E) + (N x schools) – T [ignore E] + [ignore L]

    which is….
    Email all the schools the leaflet (PLUS +) ask them to put said leaflet their newsletter ( MULTIPLIED BY) number of schools on your distribution list (MINUS – ) time it would take to drive to schools (FACTORED BY) schools who will ignore the email (PLUS +) school visitors that would ignore the leaflets

    Do we get the $1,000,000 ?

  2. Great solution but it sounds like you have worked that out via trial and error which I”m afraid would disqualify you from the prize even if it were ours to give. Thanks for the advice though (we share the pain).

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