Fun_People Archive
2 Oct
Taylor Series - A Matter of Life or Death

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed,  2 Oct 96 12:32:31 -0700
To: Fun_People
Subject: Taylor Series - A Matter of Life or Death

[I doubt that this is an Urban Legend... I've been told this story by too  
many mathematicians who had memorized the answer...  -psl]

Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <>
Subject: Probably not true, but hey...
Forwarded-by: Todd Kover <>
Forwarded-by: Omar Siddique <>
Forwarded-by: (Timothy Finin)

Taylor Series - a matter of life or death

 From The Observer (UK) May 16[?]

Mathematics can even be a matter of life or death. During the Russian
revolution, the mathematical physicist Igor Tamm was seized by anti-
communist vigilantes at a village near Odessa where he had gone to barter
for food. They suspected he was an anti-Ukranian communist agitator and
dragged him off to their leader.

Asked what he did for a living he said that he was a mathematician. The
sceptical gang-leader began to finger the bullets and grenades slung around
his neck. "All right", he said, "calculate the error when the Taylor series
approximation of a function is truncated after n terms. Do this and you will
go free; fail and you will be shot".  Tamm slowly calculated the answer in
the dust with his quivering finger. When he had finished the bandit cast
his eye over the answer and waved him on his way.

Tamm won the 1958 Nobel prize for Physics but he never did discover the
identity of the unusual bandit leader.  But he found a sure way to
concentrate his students' minds on the practical importance of Mathematics!

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