Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 11

After a much needed day off (laundry, etc.), we drove from Taos to Los Alamos to sign at Otowi Station, a unique bookstore in a unique town. Los Alamos is the home of the Manhattan Project. Robert Oppenheimer selected the remote mesa top because he had gone to camp there as a boy. The government moved in, took over all the land, moved in the top scientists they could muster, and began building the weapon that would end WWII.

In the early days, no one could access the town without a security clearance. Today, the National Labs no longer own everything in town, but security remains an issue even for the civilian portions of the village. Not too long ago, workers were repairing the roof on Otowi Station Bookstore and left their cooler of drinks on the sidewalk next to the ladder they were using. Someone called security about a suspicious package, and within minutes the store and the connecting museum were evacuated and the suspicious package detonated, spraying Mountain Dew everywhere.

The signing went well, but there are always a few lulls, so I examined the books next to my table. They all dealt with physics and mathematics. I selected a biography of Ramanujan. It contained the famous story (well, famous among mathematicians at any rate) of the British Mathematician Hardy going to see Ramanujan who was seriously ill in the hospital in London. Hardy had ridden in a taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to be rather a dull one. "No," he Ramanujan, "it is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways."

Anyone who can tell me what those two ways are will win a signed copy of The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy.


  1. They used the properties of 1729 as a joke on "The Simpsons," among other places . . . I suppose there must be a math nerd among their series writers. *GRIN*

    1729 is the second "taxicab number." I only know this because I took "Numeric Methods" with Dr. Ginsberg at SMU in 1980 when I was a junior and a math major, and he was a fascinating lecturer from NEW YORK CITY who had actually ridden in taxicabs. (You probably already know that the first taxicab number is two--1^3 + 1^3!) I remember so many fun facts from that class because he was a veritable fountain of them. But anyway--I am kind of still a number theory freak and I like to play with this stuff, even though I am a writer first and a music/math nerd second.

    the trivial solution, of course, is (because 1 is the smallest cube!~)
    1729 = 1^3 + 12^3 (12*12=144, 144*12=1728)
    or a little tougher
    1729 = 9^3 + 10^3 (9*9=81, 81*9=729; 10*10*10=1000 trivial answer)

    It's fun to look at things like this, because typically you can find one of the early cubes and subtract that one and then factor the remaining number and you'll see the pattern. Of course that's only when the puzzle is put out there by some tricky teacher or math buff . . . some numbers DON'T have any obvious special properties.

    Now I have one for you! What's a special property of 16? Extra credit: what's a special property of 18? *giggle*

  2. Oh! By the way. You don't have to send me a free book, although that would be great. I just have this irresistible urge to work on math puzzles (and happened to remember about this one--you could look it up on "Ask Dr. Math" as well).

    I love travel blogs. Los Alamos is a scary place. . . .