CHALLENGE: Decimal Decathlon

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Science  22 Feb 2002:
Vol. 295, Issue 5559, pp. 1431
DOI: 10.1126/science.295.5559.1431d

Many people think that to solve a mathematical problem you can just “throw it at the computer.” Most researchers don't pay much attention to the algorithms computers actually use. But numerical analysts are paid to worry about such things—because seemingly simple problems can require mountains of algorithmic ingenuity. To prove it, Nick Trefethen, a numerical analyst at Oxford University, has thrown down the computational equivalent of a gauntlet, offering $100 for the most accurate answers to a set of 10 mathematical problems.

The problems and the rules of the competition are downloadable from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). One puzzler, for example, asks for the future location of a photon bouncing around in a forest of circular mirrors. Others look like exercises you might find on a calculus exam—proctored by the Marquis de Sade. The questions are particularly challenging because the seemingly straightforward solution yields the wrong answer. According to Trefethen: “If anyone gets even half the problems, I will be impressed.” Entries are due by 20 May, and Trefethen will publish the answers and the names of the winners in the July/August issue of SIAM News.

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