February 03, 2007

Charm School (and battling logicians)

Alex is a first-year student at MIT, which is just ending its Independent Activities Period. Although her robot was kicked out of the tournament for trash-talking, her IAP was not a total waste:

I have fond memories of IAP, though the only educational residue that I can call to mind is a (by now slightly fuzzy) appreciation of the Banach-Tarski theorem as explained by George Boolos in 1972.

Anyhow, I'm disappointed that Alex missed (what seems to me to have been) the highlight of this year's IAP, the Large Number Competition ("Two competitors. One chalkboard. Largest integer wins.")

Two philosophers (Agustín Rayo and Adam Elga) attempt to top each other in a battle over who can write down the largest finite number. In the course of introducing increasingly powerful notations for large numbers, the duelists will give lightning fast introductions to formal logic, computability theory, and the theory of ordinals. An attempt will be made to set a Guiness record for "Largest finite number ever written on an ordinary-sized chalk board". If this attempt succeeds, all participants will during the lecture name a number greater than any number previously named by a human being.

The poster is especially attractive:

I'm disappointed both because of the missed opportunity to see mathematical logic in the funny papers, and also because I badly want to know how the match came out.

OK, as a consolation, here's the Doonesbury robot-duel sequence:

[Update -- of course, a little web searching turned up a description of the event ("Professors Duke It Out in Big Number Duel", The Tech, 1/31/2007), with a transcription of the winning effort. Which would have fit in a Doonesbury panel, easy. But where's the YouTube video of the match? ]

[Update #2 -- several readers have reminded me that xkcd #207 ("What does xkcd mean?")already went where Doonesbury hasn't dared to go:

(Though this entry would not have made it very far into the competition at MIT.) And Jason Parker-Burlingham points us, via the xkcd blag comments, to a 1999 discussion of large-number competitions by Scott Aaronson. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 3, 2007 08:25 AM