Well, it’s not the Thrilla-In-Manila, nor the Olympics, nor even the Soccer World Cup (to which, as an American, I can only say ho-hum), but a perfect, that is Lawson-Perfect, summer diversion for math geeks devised by The Aperiodical’s Christian Lawson-Perfect — intended to crown the "world’s most interesting mathematician" (well, at least of the 16 participating — and as Jim Propp notes, that real honor goes to John Horton Conway… so perhaps it should be called the "John Conway prize” ;)
With tons of interesting math bits to choose from, most of which are well covered, part of the fun is discovering exactly which intriguing bits various participants find most interesting (or at least think their readers will find most interesting), and then seeing exactly how they manage to present those bits.
I tried to look for some pattern or commonality among the winners thus far, but don’t really see one (does anybody???), though I haven’t yet run a complete astrological analysis ;).
But with Round 1 of the contest drawing near conclusion, a few general comments:
1) Even though this could be expected, still heartening to see so many entrants cite Martin Gardner for inspiration. Martin was not even a trained mathematician, yet as the saying goes, he “...turned 1000s of children into mathematicians, and 1000s of mathematicians into children.”
2) 16 seems a perfect number of competitors — not too many, to drag the contest out too long, potentially losing public interest, but enough for variety, diversity, and sustained interest.
3) It’s not just the topic an entrant chooses that is important, but the presentation is vital! Some folks chose ideas that were new to me and vote-worthy on that account, while others selected material that is more well-worn, but presented in such a clear, clever or creative manner that they got my vote.
4) One thing I’m not clear about is why vote totals vary so much from one matchup to another, ranging from ~180 to 878! — unless it’s just a case of some competitors having more nieces, nephews, friends, relatives, dogs and goldfish to draw upon for an assist than others!?
5) Some players gave relatively short presentations that just basically said ‘look at this, it’s interesting!’ while others gave more lengthy fleshed-out verbal descriptions and/or longer videos. I couldn’t tell that either approach was more consistently successful; seemed to me that clarity and creativity were more important than novelty, length, or technicality. Some topics were more abstract and some more hands-on, but again, I’m not sure either approach dominates — both can produce the “Aha!” moment Lawson-Perfect is seeking.
6) Finally, does anyone really WANT the burden of the title “World’s Most Interesting Mathematician” — think of the pressure, the stress, the nervous self-doubt and performance-anxiety!! Maybe just leave all that for John Conway, afterall (...he's already got gray hair).
In any event, so far it looks like 5 of my 8 initial bracketology picks will make it to the next round (from the “Sweet 16” to the “Elite 8,” as we would say in America), and what ought be a fun week ahead. Brits outnumber Americans and 2-syllable surnames outnumber all others! — so if you want to root for the underdog, then Lamb is your choice. ;)
Anyway, kudos to The Aperiodical folks for giving us at least a temporary distraction from the Brexit, Trump, and other insanities of daily news, with a contest that includes both wonderful writing and wonderful links. May it become an annual event!
…ALSO, I’d love to continue the fun by collecting a ‘Greatest Hits’ list of links from a wide variety of math communicators for a future post (NOT a competition, but just a sort of listing of single FAVORITE links contributed by great bloggers) — more on that in a future post over at Math-Frolic, but please be thinking what you might submit if asked to refer math fans to ONE single awesome old or new mathy link to read or view (NOT your own material) that they may have missed or forgotten about.