Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Next Number is...

The title of this post is appropriate for two reasons:
1. this post is my 100th post on this blog
2. this was a phrase used today at TAM6 by Dr. Art Benjamin, the Mathemagician.
The Art of Memory

My favorite afternoon workshop was The Art of Memory by Banachek. Banachek is billed as the world's leading Mentalist, and he kicked off his session by memorizing an entire deck of cards in about 47 seconds. Over the next 2 hours, he showed us several ways to do this. This has got to win the prize for the most practical first day talk ever at a Las Vegas convention!

By the end of this two hour session, he had given us mnemonic tools for memorizing a grocery list, a speech and a 74 digit number. Knowing these techniques back in my pre-med and med school days would have been worth the price of admission, all by themselves.

Besides his prodigious feats of memory, Banachek performs some pretty swell illusions, as shown in the video clip below.

The fascinating story of Banachek's work with James Randi in Project Alpha is well worth the read. If you'd prefer to hear this tale in Randi's own words, The Amazing Show podcast on that subject makes for fine listening.

The Mathemagician

If Art Benjamin were John Henry, the steam drill would have had its ass handed to it in a handbasket. Art demonstrated this right off the bat, by outperforming 5 people with calculators in several numerical feats.

It's hard to wow a room full of practicing skeptics, but Art accomplished this pretty quickly, spouting out the squares of 4 digit numbers about as fast as the audience could call them out. Before the calculator dudes on stage could even enter the digits for most of the problems, he was writing the answer down on a flip chart.

It's usually a let-down when a magician tells us the secret behind a trick. Benjamin, however, is a great exception to this rule. Even after he explained to us the details of how he did all of these mental calculations, it remained jaw-dropping to watch him blasting through these techniques at warp 4.

I could hoard all of these secrets to myself, but that would be pointless, since his excellent book (Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician's Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks) reveals them all within its pages.

In the following video clip from the TED Talks, you'll see why we also gave him a standing ovation:

Besides being a great stage performer, Art Benjamin is a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, with a special interest in combinatorics and Fibonacci numbers. In the Q & A session, someone asked him for the URL of his website. He joked that despite these credentials and being able to recite the first 100 digits of pi, he was unable to remember his own web address. How does he find his site online? He googles himself.

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