COVID-19 Q&A

My friend Joshua Jay, who is one of the world’s top magicians, emails me from time to time with math questions. Sometimes they’re about card tricks, sometimes other things. Last night he sent me an excellent question about COVID-19, and I imagine that many others have wondered about this too. So I thought I’d share my response, in case it’s helpful to anyone.

JJ: Since the government is predicting between 100k – 240k deaths from COVID-19, let’s for argument’s sake split the difference and call it 170k projected deaths. They’re ALSO telling us they believe the deaths will “peak” something like April 20th. Am I wrong in assuming, then, that if we assume 170k total deaths, and the halfway point is a mere two weeks away, then they’re projecting 85k deaths before (and after) April 20th?

When I start to think about the idea of of 85k deaths between now and April 20th, and we’ve only experienced 5k so far, it means that 80k people are projected to die in the next two weeks. Surely that can’t be correct, or else it would be dominating the news cycle, right?

I’m not asking whether you think those projections are accurate… I’m just trying to wrap my head around the relationship between total projected deaths (whatever it is) and the projected peak of the curve. 

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The Drunkard’s Walk and Catalan Numbers

In this post, I’d like to present an amusing and off-the-beaten-path solution to the classical “Drunkard’s Walk” problem which at the same time derives the well-known generating function for the Catalan numbers.  This solution evolved from a suggestion by my former undergraduate student Stefan Froehlich during a discussion in my Math 4802 (Mathematical Problem Solving) class at Georgia Tech in Fall 2007.

In case you’re not familiar with it, here’s the problem (in a formulation I learned from this book by Frederick Mosteller):

A drunken man standing one step from the edge of a cliff takes a sequence of random steps either away from or toward the cliff. At any step, his probability of taking a step away from the cliff is p (and therefore his probability of taking a step toward the cliff is 1-p). What is the probability that the man will eventually fall off the cliff?

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Probability, Primes, and Pi

What is the probability that two randomly chosen integers have no prime factors in common?  In honor of Pi Day, I’d like to explain the surprising answer: 6/\pi^2.

The hero of this story is Leonhard Euler, who worked out this astonishing connection between prime numbers and \pi through a series of brilliant insights.  In the spirit of Euler, I will be rather cavalier about issues of convergence and rigor here, focusing on the key underlying ideas.

18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler

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Spooky inference and the axiom of choice

A large crowd had gathered in Harvard Square, and I was curious what all the cheering and gasping was about.  HarvardSquareWorking my way through the crowd, I saw a street performer who (according to the handwritten red letters on his cardboard sign) went by the name “Zorn the Magnificent”.  He displayed a large orange, borrowed an extremely sharp knife from his assistant, and proceeded to chop the orange into five exotic-looking pieces while standing on one hand.  Working with almost unfathomably deft precision, he rearranged the pieces into two oranges, each the same size as the original one.  The oranges were given out for inspection and the crowd cheered wildly.  I clapped as well — even though I was familiar with the old Banach-Tarski paradox — since it was nevertheless an impressive display of skill and I had never seen it done one-handed before.  I heard a man with a long white beard whisper to the woman next to him “He hides it well, but I know that he’s secretly using the Axiom of Choice.” Continue reading