Math and Magic Equal Sum Fun

Persi DiaconisThe Minnesota Daily profiles Persi Diaconis' use of magic to teach math; or math to learn magic tricks.  

Either way, it involves magic so it makes our pages.  (It is also featured on our sister site, Inside Mathematics – which received its 100th hit last week after only two years in existence). 

Here was the Stanford Professor's first effect:

Persi Diaconis tossed a sealed deck of cards into an overflowing audience Wednesday night in a Willey Hall auditorium. He asked the man who caught it to cut the deck and pass it along the row while each person took a card.        
Then Diaconis told each person which card they had picked — and he was right.

Dr. Diaconis did not use a Svengali or Peek deck.  No, he used something far more exotic – math. 

But does he know how to do the seven piles of cards spread all over the table trick?  


“When somebody says they’re going to do a math-magic trick, it sounds as if they’re going to deal cards in piles, and you’ll all fall asleep,” Diaconis said. “I try to develop tricks that are good tricks that don’t look like math, but that have real math hidden in them.”

The profs at the University of Minnesota know Dr. Diaconis for his research in statistics and probability as well as his magic skills.

"He has brought a lot of insight into the way randomness works," one Minnesota professor noted.  "People think it's easy, but it's not."

Quinlan's Inside Magic has long been on record as standing for the proposition that randomness is not easy.

(See, "Randomness Isn't Easy," June 13, 2001; "Randomness Easy? We Beg to Differ," May 25, 1003; "Anyone Can Master Randomness, Cuz It's Easy — NOT!" July 2, 2004; and our most recent lecture tour titled, Randomness and Thimble Sleights – Both Difficult and Not Easy.  Look for our L&L DVD (five-disk set) due out this fall, Using Randomness Like a Pro. We could have fit all seven of the trick segments on one DVD and still had room for slow-motion video of us eating toothpaste (you have to see the DVD or lecture to appreciate this) and pretending our tattoos were scratch-off Lottery Tickets, but we wouldn't have been able to charge for five DVDs). 

Prof. Diaconis started magic at the age of 6, hung around gamblers to learn more, and it all lead to running away from home at the age of 14 to tour with Dai Vernon.  

He learned much from Mr. Vernon and the gamblers: “Magicians are very interested in gamblers, because gamblers have to be very skillful,” he said. “If they aren’t, they won’t survive.”

The gamblers told him to learn about probablility and he found a book that seemed to hold all the answers — unfortunately, the book required a knowledge of Calculus.  

He knew how to deal seconds, bottoms, to false shuffle and hold-out.  But he couldn't do Calculus.  

The young man (then 24) attended night school in New York to learn this higher form of mathematics.  After graduation he was accepted to Harvard where he went on to earn a doctorate in statistics.

What are the odds? 

“Even when I was in graduate school, I remember thinking, When am I going to get interested in this math stuff?” he said. “Now, I do more math than magic.”

He told the reporter "he’s just happy that there is a link between his interests. I don’t find it so different, inventing magic tricks and proving theorems,” he said. “There’s just something wonderful about finding the right solution to a hard problem. It’s intriguing to me.”

We agree.  

Check out Dr. Diaconis' web site at Stanford for really neat information about probability, statistics, and the history of those who would try to contain randomness.  


Magic News Magic Math Gambling


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