Urban Legends

Someone Else's Math

The Legend

In 1982, a Canadian newspaper had a story about a mathematician who wanted to enter a high-prestige contest for papers on unique but obscure mathematical astronomy. His entry was to be a detailed investigation into the formula for the sheer force generated at a given distance d from a regular bisected taurus of mass m significantly removed from other gravitational sources.

Just having a paper accepted as an entry into such a contest carried with it a great deal of prestige. Unfortunately, the mathematician's workload was heavy and he ran out of time to finish the paper before the contest deadline. In a last-ditch effort to save face, he grabbed a bunch of old papers filled with fancy-looking mathematics (a joke treatise on a mathematical model of the Sol system which could be "run back in time" to show missing hours on certain historically important dates) and stuffed them between the finished introduction and conclusion of his contest paper. He put the paperwork in an envelope and rushed it to the hall of mathematics, where he was able to put it in the submission box just ahead of the deadline.

That done, he rushed home to call a friend who was one of the contest's peer reviewers. After calling in a number of owed personal favors, he got his friend to agree to get the mathematician's paper to review, so that the mathematician could finish his work over night and give his friend the real paper in the morning.

Hours later, the friend called back. Someone else must have taken the mathematician's paper because it was nowhere to be seen.

The mathematician knew that his name was mud the moment that paper was found with his name on it. There was nothing he could do, so he just remained silent and waited for fate to divide by zero.

A few days later, the mathematician was attending a small dinner party for faculty at the home of a young up-and-coming mathematics professor who, it just so happened, was also a peer reviewer for the contest. As the group milled about waiting for dinner to be called, one of them pointed to one of many stacks of papers on a sideboard. "What a brilliant theory," the man said, reading the paper's title page.

The mathematician looked at the object in question and saw that it was his padded entry into the contest. What could he do? He was going to pull the young professor aside and "spill the equation's factors" when the young man said, "Thank you. I derived it myself."

Behind the Legend

An alternative version of this story circulates in which the mathematician has calculated the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but this is a philosophical, not a mathematical, question, so the variant version must be spurious. A further variation in which the central object is an angel-food cake for a bake sale also circulates, but is also obviously incorrect, because it makes no sense for a mathematician to enter a baking contest.

For the record, according to a follow-up story in the same Canadian paper, the young professor resigned from the university in disgrace, and the mathematician won the contest the next year with a brilliant method of taking the first derivative of a devils-food cake recipe in order to make a single cupcake.

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