1. Pythonforger
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    Pythonforger Carrier of Insanity

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    Lightning Speed Mental Calculation?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Pythonforger, Sep 8, 2011.

    Okay, so I'm working on this short story called Probability:Atom, in which a terrorist places several malfunctioning electronic hijackers onto an atom bomb. The hijackers are supposed to override the atom bomb's controls and detonate the bomb, but are slightly faulty. They are set to start hijacking at 11:30, and the original plan was for the bomb to detonate at around noon. The protagonist, a math genius, learns about this and hurries toward the location of the bomb. The problem is, he has to constantly calculate the probability of the hijacker's detonating the bomb against the possible loss of lives, property etc. if the bomb detonates, weighing his life against the risks, rewards and probability. It has a lot to do with complicated math, and the protag has to make some really fast calculations.

    The question is, is this possible, even for a math genius? Also, there is about a chapter before he finds out about the bomb situation, so he's mostly wandering around, buying groceries and chatting with his friends. In that chapter, he displays almost OCD-like tendencies to calculate percentages and the like, even for completely redundant things, such as watching a woman in the supermarket examining an orange and calculating the probability that she'll put it in her cart versus the probability that she'll buy it.

    So is all this math physically impossible even for a genius to handle?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If you watch the show NUMB3RS, they do this all the time. However, no, it's pure fiction. The problem is not so much a matter of computational speed and accuracy as a matter of raw data upon which to base those calculations. WAGs (wild-ass guesses) just won't cut it for purely chaotic probabilities.
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Cogito is right. Many people in the world have amazing mental calculating abilities, and good for them. It's not the arithmetic that's the problem. It's the lack of accurate data. In the scenario you present, your character cannot know all the facts he needs to calculate with.
     
  4. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    The others are right, you can't calculate anything if you don't have the raw data to begin with. So if your MC is going to calculate the probability of the bomb going off early because the bombers are faulty, what's he going to base his calculation on? Now reading your post I was unclear whether these electronic hijackers were computer programs, robots or people hacking. If they were in the first two categories, and he somehow had some advanced and inexplicable information about them such that for example he knew there was a 1.5% chance every minute that they would detonate the bomb, then he could calculate those odds. If its a person he's never met on the other end of a keyboard, he's got nothing at all to work with.
     
  5. Quorum1
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    Quorum1 Member

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    You could make him an Autistic savant (like Rainman), would make for an interesting character and build in some conflict for you (do the authorities not take him seriously because of his diagnosis?).
     
  6. Pythonforger
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    Pythonforger Carrier of Insanity

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    Thanks for the feedback. I'm going to try and figure a way around that stumbling block. Maybe he'd be a detective, and have access to security cameras around the bomb?
     
  7. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    The problem is, what are the cameras going to tell him? I can have access to five million cameras and still have no idea which way a person is going to turn or not turn when he leaves the building to go to lunch. In order to know that, to calculate it with any degree of probability, I have to know where he's going for lunch or where his car is, and even that isn't going to be a hundred percent reliable, since he may see someone he knows on the street or simply not be thinking.

    Now I could make a better stab at guessing if and when a bomber is going to pull a trigger, if I knew everything about him. But that would require me having been watching him for potentially months or years,studying his every decision, knowing what makes him tick, but even that would just be guesswork. I'd be trying to guess whether he truly wants to blow someone up, whether this is fun for himor not, whether he's an impatient sort, whether he has moral qualms, if he's possibly scared of being caught, and so on. A camera just isn't enough for this. You'd really need to have interviewed his family, and probably have had a team of behavioural experts assessing him. If you had that of course the next question would be, why was he allowed to go out and hijack a bomb? It smacks of someone not having done their job well. But even then, the problem for your MC is that it isn't going to result in a mathematical probability of him pulling the trigger which you can then use as the basis for a calculation, just a judgement.

    Cheers.
     
  8. Pythonforger
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    Pythonforger Carrier of Insanity

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    Thanks psychotick! You always give such knowledge filled answers....

    I'll just have to find some other way. If I manage to get an answer, I'll tell y'all for feedback on it.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I mentioned the TV show NUMB3RS. What they do is not really possible, and yet it is a popular series.

    If it's an impossibility, make it a convincing lie.
     
  10. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    This reminds me of a tv show I watched recently. There was a elementary or junior high school teacher who could workout pretty much any type of math problem in his head faster than a calculator...or rather people using calculators. They put him against 10 or so of the top mathematicians armed with calculators at some university in California. Was pretty amazing to watch...anyway, on topic. I agree with pretty much everyone else. You may want to check out some of Dan Brown's books. Your idea seems similar to me--his protagonists are usually folks with a unique skill required to save the day using said skill in a very limited amount of time. You might be able to pick up how he does that. His book, Digital Fortress, contains math and algorithms and so on and so forth related to the main plot line, which doesn't include an a-bomb, but something similar. Just thought I'd toss that out there, may help you out.
     

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