unsolvable math problems

I once heard of a story about a student who arrived late to class and saw three math problems on the board. He wrote them down, assuming they were homework assignments. A few days later he went to the professor and asked if it was too late to turn in the homework assignments because they had seemed harder than normal. The professor was confused because he hadn’t assigned any homework, then realized that the student had solved problems which up until that time were unsolvable.

I heard the story used in the context of the power of a positive mental attitude, illustrating the power of thinking positively. The rest of the students didn’t bother trying because they were told it was impossible, whereas the student who arrived late assumed they were a regular homework problem and was able to solve them.

I thought it was a nice story, but my skepticism didn’t believe it was true. I was surprised to find out that according to research done by Snopes, it’s true for the most part. Some people (ahem . . . Robert Schuller) embellished the story claiming Einstein hadn’t been able to solve the problem, but the essence of the story remains.

So the moral of the story is that if people claim something can’t be done, don’t listen to them and do it anyway (or maybe it’s that you should sleep late . . . )


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  1. Personally, had I been told that it was not solvable, I wouldn’t have bothered. But really, what the professor should have done was make the problems as homework assignment (as a joke or sort) and when people come in all puzzled, tell them that it is not solvable. But kudos to the person who did manage to solve it.

    Comment by Teja on May 28, 2005 @ 3:49 pm
  2. It also means that it is good to be late for class. Good thing too.

    Comment by Stephen Urich on May 31, 2005 @ 8:43 am
  3. There was a recent Slashdot article about the guy mentioned on Snopes: http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/05/23/0058215&tid=228&tid=14

    Comment by J on May 31, 2005 @ 4:35 pm
  4. Cool. Thanks for the link J.

    Comment by dan on May 31, 2005 @ 10:12 pm

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