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When math won't help
Scripps Howard News Service


April 10, 2005

All the wisdom of Archimedes couldn't help Otterbein College mathematics professor Dan Boros recently when he was handed a basketball and a chance to win a cool million dollars if he could sink a half-court shot in New York City's Times Square.

Peering down from the heavens, the ancient Greek mathematician couldn't lift a finger when Boros palmed the ball and studied the rim 47 feet distant while "Good Morning America" looked on.

My heart was happy for that. It is not that I wished Boros ill. Quite the contrary. I had all my fingers crossed for the Romanian immigrant. I was happy because, finally, after four decades. I now have proof that my old algebra teacher Leon Garrett, was wrong.

The chief disciple of the gospel of the quadratic equation, Garrett believed that there was no problem in life - no challenge so difficult, no dilemma so thorny - that mathematics could not solve.

But, there was nothing in Boros' doctoral thesis, the spellbinding "L2 Homology of Low-dimensional Buildings," to help him plan the perfect trajectory. For all of the quadratic equations floating around in his brainpan, math was useless.

Nor would physics, a discipline I regard as the scruffy cousin of mathematics, yield helpful tips. Boros asked his physicist wife, Mihaela, for suggestions.

She told him gravity would be his worst enemy.

Some help there.

Less than 24 hours before showtime , Boros left his Manhattan hotel room in search of a hoop to practice.

"I went to Central Park and found two baskets," he said. He didn't count his attempts from half-court but noted, "I made two in an hour and a half."

He earned the chance to win $1 million in a Planters sweepstakes, in part by being on the nut company's e-mail list for giveaways and coupons and in part because of boredom.

"There was nothing I wanted to see on the television," he said, "so I was on the computer."

When he registered online for the shot at a million, he was informed he was a winner.

"I thought it was a glitch in the system," he said. "I went to bed thinking, 'Well, we will see.'"

It was no glitch. Boros and his wife won a trip to the NCAA Final Four and then were flown from St. Louis to New York for his shot at the prize.

"I could name five sports I played," Boros said of his youth in Romania, "but basketball was not one of them."

Boros has a doctorate in math. I flunked algebra once in high school and twice in college. But if I had been standing in Times Square next to Boros, my chances would be just as good as his - about 1 in 35.

Those are the odds Mike Meyers gave me when I telephoned him in Atlanta. Meyers once worked for American Hole in One, a company in Buford, Ga., that sells insurance for promotions such as that one for which Boros was selected.

Math, except in its most elemental form, didn't help Meyers and his former co-workers establish actuarial tables for such events.

"We just went out and shot hoops," he said.

Poor Leon Garrett went to his grave with a permanent imprint of one of his palms in the middle of his forehead, an eternal reminder of the year he tried to teach me algebra.

Mathematics held the key to everything, he believed.

It didn't help Boros, though, when he missed the basket and $1 million.

It all reminded me of a quote in the "Tips for Teens" chapter of Fran Lebowitz's book "Social Studies:"

"Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra (class). In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra."


Mike Harden is a columnist at the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.
E-mail mharden(at)


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