How Math Can Help You Avoid Talking about Politics at the Holidays

Another fun family activity is to make hand turkeys and fill them with the theorems you're most thankful for. Image: Evelyn Lamb

A fun family Thanksgiving activity is to make hand turkeys and fill them with the theorems you’re most thankful for. Image: Evelyn Lamb.

Happy Thanksgiving! I’m sure your wonderful family is the exception, but sometimes holiday dinner conversations can veer into unpleasant territory. If you don’t have Adele to bail you out, math blogs are here to help. (When your only tool is a math blog, every problem looks like…well, whatever a math blog can solve.) If you need a conversation topic for a group of turkey-bloated people with a diverse range of opinions about politics, religion, and morality, here are some suggestions from the math blogosphere.

What your part of America eats for Thanksgiving, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight. There’s nothing more satisfying than talking about food as you devour it. Green beans or squash? Canned cranberry sauce or whole berry? Are Thanksgiving cherry pie eaters totally depraved or just slightly misguided?

With a few diagrams scratched into the mashed potatoes, anyone can appreciate this elegant proof of the Pythagorean theorem attributed to Albert Einstein.

Tanya Khovanova’s math blog is rife with fun puzzles, but my favorite at the moment is this one: How many letters are there in the correct answer to this question? 

Likewise, Math Munch has lots of fun topics and activities to look into. Hypernom seems especially appropriate for this particular holiday.

How many pentagonal tilings can you make with turkey bones and orphaned green beans after dinner?

Mathematicians have proved that English is trivial. In that article, Alex Bellos gives “aisle” and “isle” as an example. They are homophones, so we can do a little algebra to show aisle=isle, which means a=1. In fact, we can find homophones to reduce every letter of the alphabet to 1. Can you prove it around the dinner table? As a bonus, try to prove it for other languages represented around your table.

The Erdős discrepancy conjecture, one of the many (fairly) easy to state but hard to prove conjectures about sequences of integers, was recently proven. Everyone likes numbers, so you can definitely get people talking about these conjectures and maybe even make some progress at the Collatz conjecture.

Graph isomorphism! Those feisty computer scientists are at it again, whittling down the known complexity of NP-intermediate problems. You can get the whole family involved in this one: draw some graphs with leftover cranberries and green beans and see if they’re isomorphic. Were you able to do it in polynomial time?

What is the funniest number? Do you agree with Catch-[insert funny number] author Joseph Heller and his agent?

If you did an average of a 15:00 mile over the course of the race, is there a mile you traveled in exactly 15:00? Get thee to a turkey trot for some real-world experiments!

What’s up with Shinichi Mochizuki’s proof of the abc conjecture? And what does the saga say about the sociology of mathematics? For that one, you might need to brush up on what exactly the abc conjecture is. Luckily, Numberphile has you covered.

Can you wrap your mind around the function xx?

If you want to stir the pot but prefer to avoid politics, Is 5×3 five threes or three fives, and does it matter?

If all else fails, you can always gather the family around the computer screen, watch Vi Hart’s mathematical Thanksgiving celebration, and lament the fact that you made a green bean casserole rather than a green bean matherole.

However you celebrate or don’t, I hope you have a peaceful holiday.

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