So here’s the situation: you’re at the breakfast table, enjoying a bowl of steaming-hot steel-cut oats and maple syrup, and you just poured yourself a mug of black coffee. But then you realize you want to pour some milk in the coffee (sorry, purists). But the milk is in the frig, six feet away. So of course you walk to the frig, grab the milk, bring it to the table, pour some in your coffee, return the milk to the frig and sit back down. Question: could you have done this more efficiently?

Yes, of course. You could have brought your cup of coffee with you as you walked to the frig, poured the milk right there at the frig, returned the milk, and then walked back to the table.

When I realized this this morning, I thought … hmmm. Had I used a bit of forethought, I would save myself an entire round trip from the table to the frig. And while I have no problem making that extra trip (hey, just burned 1.3 calories, right?), the experience made me wonder if anyone has ever developed a mathematics of efficiency for running errands.

I could imagine someone taking initial steps for this. One would create symbols for the various aspects of errands. There would be a general symbol for an errand, and there would be a special ways of denoting: 1) an errand station (like the frig), 2) an errand that requires transporting an item (like carrying the mug), 3) an errand that requires doing an activity (pouring milk) with two items (mug and milk) at an errand station, 4) an errand that involves picking something up (picking up the mug), and so on. Then one could schematize the process and use it to code various kinds of errands. Eventually, perhaps, one could use such a system to analyze the most efficient way to, say, carry out 15 errands of which 3 involve transporting items, 7 involve picking things up, and 5 involve doing tasks at errand stations. Don’t get me wrong! I have not even begun to try this, but I’ve studied enough math that I can imagine it being done, and that’s one thing I love about math; it allows us to create general systems for analyzing real-world situations and thereby to do those activities more intelligently.

Of course, one reason I’m bringing this up is to encourage people to think more deeply about things that occur in their everyday lives. Activities that appear mundane can become mathematically intriguing when investigated. A wonderful example is the famous problem of the “Bridges of Konigsberg,” explored by the prolific mathematician Leonhard Euler nearly 300 years ago.

Euler in 1736 was living in the town of Konigsberg, now part of Russia. The Pregel River, which flows through Konigsberg, weaves around two islands that are part of the town, and a set of seven lovely bridges connect the islands to each other and to the town’s two river banks. For centuries Konigsberg’s residents wondered if there was a way to take a walk, starting at Point A, crossing each bridge exactly once, and return to Point A. But no one had found a way to do this.

Enter Euler. The great mathematician sat down and simplified the problem, turning the bridges into abstract line segments and transforming the bridge entrance and exits into points. Eventually Euler rigorously proved that there is no way to take the walk that people had wondered about. This would be just an interesting little tale, but it has a remarkable offshoot. After Euler published his proof, mathematicians took his way of simplifying the situation and, by exploring it, developed two new branches of math: topology and graph theory. The graph theory ideas that Euler first explored when thinking about the seven bridges sparked a branch of math that’s used today to determine the most efficient ways of connecting servers that form the backbone of the internet!

Of course, there’s also the classic example of Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” and running through the streets naked after seeing water rise in his bathtub. In that moment, Archimedes, who had been trying to help his king figure out if the crown that was just made for him had been created with pure gold, or with an alloy, saw that the water displacement would help him solve the problem. In the end, Archimedes determined that the crown was not pure gold, and the king rewarded the great thinker for his efforts.

As I write this, I find myself wondering if any of you readers can think of other situations in which everyday life experiences led mathematicians or scientists to major discoveries. It would be enlightening to hear more of these stories.

And, if no such stories spring to mind, check out this site, which lists several such stories. http://www.sciencechannel.com/famous-scientists-discoveries/10-eureka-moments.htm

In any case, the way that such discoveries occur shows that you never know where a seemingly trivial idea might lead … so it’s good to keep your eyes and mind open.

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