When Mathematics Meets Politics in a Lunchbox

Magic square lunchbox in 2011 Korean historical drama / sageuk Tree With Deep Roots

Every time a grisly murder ordered by his father, King Taejong, takes place, King Sejong despondently buries himself in magic squares—n x n matrices in which each number from 1 to n2 appears just once and the sum of numbers in each row, column and main diagonal (a value known as “magic constant“) is identical. But the troubling news would not leave him alone in this introductory portion of Tree With Deep Roots, a political thriller depicting the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangul. Couriers, guards and his mournful queen storm his problem solving chamber, where a gigantic and incomplete 33 x 33 magic square reflects the scale of his woes.

Taejong, who has abdicated but continues to wield power, invites himself in as well, proposing an easy solution to the conundrum. He throws away  Continue reading


Necessity and Sufficiency

Poster of Jang Dan-bi (Kim Seul-gi) and Lee Do / King Sejong (Yoon Doo-joon) in the rain 2015 Naver Korean web drama / MBC drama special Splish Splash Love / Splash Splash Love / Pongdang Pongdang Love

Even the most fervent critic of metaphysics must have pondered from time to time: what is the meaning of my existence to this world?

Feeling hopeless about her prospects in grades-obsessed South Korea on the day of the college entrance examination, mathematically challenged highschooler Jang Dan-bi jumps into a rain puddle transporting her to a drought-stricken Joseon, where Sejong the Great (King Sejong) and his ministers are praying for a timely, much-needed rain, also called “danbi” in Korean. Now in the 15th century, when modern multiplication tables are unheard of, her mediocre mathematics skills take on heightened importance as she teaches mathematics enthusiast King Sejong rudimentary arithmetic and science. Along the way, she befriends a man she identifies as Jang Yeong-sil, an actual historical figure credited for the invention of multiple meteorological and astronomical devices, and inadvertently takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of Joseon technological advances.

But the message Splish Splash Love conveyed to high school seniors, who received their examination results the week before the first broadcast, went deeper than that.  Continue reading

Monte Carlo Fallacy

Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) climbing into a slide in 2015 Korean drama She Was Pretty

Here goes a popular mathematical joke: If you are fearful of the small risk of boarding the same plane as a bomb-crazy terrorist, make the odds even tinier by packing along a bomb in your luggage!

Known as the gambler’s fallacy or Monte Carlo fallacy, the most spectacular example of this type of flawed thinking took place in the eponymous casino in 1913, when the ball in a roulette wheel landed on black 26 times in a row, taking away millions from players believing that it was more likely to give red after each lengthy sequence of blacks. Like these players, many people tend to believe that after the same event has happened multiple times or after a single unlikely event has taken its course, the likelihoods of events of an opposite nature will rise as part of some compensatory mechanism of the universe. Yet, in reality, if each event occurs independently, such that an outcome does not alter the conditions under which the next event takes place, the probabilities of the events should remain constant, regardless of how unlikely the previous results are.

If there is any compensatory effect, it manifests by Continue reading

Fermat’s Last Theorem—It All Starts With a Little Confession

Cha Ji-an (Jang Na-ra) and Lee Hyun / David Lee (Seo In-guk) with purple flowers in 2015 Korean drama Hello Monster / I Remember You

The identities of Hello Monster‘s criminal masterminds are no real mysteries, but the show regales puzzle lovers all the same with ingenious cryptograms, including asterisk-based symbols that translate into flag semaphores coding for geographic coordinates of crime locations, with missing strokes of the asterisks representing flag positions, and crossword puzzles which black and white spaces encode binary numbers that lead to resident registration numbers of murder victims. There is also the male protagonist’s evaluation of the female protagonist: 15 plus alpha, 15 being the score he also gives to most of their colleagues and “plus alpha” being loan words used in Korea and Japan to mean “something extra.” When she requests an elaboration, he likens her worth to the exponents in Fermat’s Last Theorem—an unquantifiable value.

Continue reading

Ad Meliora

Lee Hyun / David Lee (Seo In-guk) and Lawyer Jung Sun-Ho / Lee Min (Park Bo-gum) in 2015 Korean crime drama Hello Monster / I Remember You

Most pre-Socratic thinkers, British philosopher Bertrand Russell mused, were adventurous and free-spirited dreamers who explored a great diversity of topics with childlike enthusiasm. Among them, Leucippus and his protégé Democritus developed metaphysical theories that were millennia ahead of their times. In psychological thriller Hello Monster, genius profiler Lee Hyun kept running into a mysterious lawyer, Jung Sun-ho, and the two name-dropped the other duo in a bombastic banter about whether these encounters were mere coincidences. But why let them have all the fun?

Continue reading