A collection of math and science problems originating in Russia and brought to MIT by senior research fellow Yuri Chernyak has been turned into a book entitled The Chicken from Minsk: And 99 other Infuriatingly Challenging Brain Teasers from the Great Russian Tradition of Math and Science.
The book is authored by Dr. Chernyak, a former senior scientist and associate professor of physics at Moscow State University, and Robert M. Rose, professor of materials science and engineering. Russian students have wrestled over the problems for years on exams and just for fun; Dr. Chernyak imported thousands of them and has been using some in IAP courses taken by students in the Concourse program, of which Dr. Rose is the director. The collection of brain-teasers spawned the Five O'Clock Club, an informal group of freshmen who sometimes stayed up until 5am arguing over and analyzing the problems.
The volume "is full of bad jokes and good cartoons" drawn by Joseph Latinsky, another former Soviet refusenik, Professor Rose said. The problems, which have names like "Old Man Maza Rows for His Vodka" and "All Tunnels Lead to Moscow," include anecdotes about how they originated or were first solved. They range from easy to extremely difficult, containing humorous references to aspects of Russian life such as communism and bureaucracy even as they teach concepts of mechanics and special relativity. One uses a Russian legend about rabbits in a meadow as it makes the student derive the Hubble constant, he noted.
Only about one-quarter of the problems require calculus, so anyone from high school age and up should enjoy tackling them. "It's a superb educational tool," Professor Rose said.
The News Office receives requests for information from time to time via e-mail , but the message received May 12 with a subject line saying "I want to be a future student" was somewhat out of the ordinary and made for enjoyable reading:
"My name is Maxwell Jordan Winer. I like being called Max for short, and I'm nine years old. When my dad first told me about this school I was very excited and I still am and I will always be. I am really into science and technology. That is why I am E-Mailing you. If you are interested, I want to tell you about a big science contest I won. I entered a big science contest, it was about recycling used containers and making it into something different. I made building blocks out of my little sister's baby wipe boxes. After about four weeks my science lab teacher came into the cafeteria to announce the winners of the science contest. When she announced the non-winners, I didn't hear my name being called. So then I got really excited, and she announced my name as a grand prize winner. I won a trip to the Great Swamp.
"I live in Elizabeth, New Jersey and as you can see, I am a big fan of M.I.T. So I'll see you in a few years. Please write back. See you soon, Max Winer."
The MIT International Relations Council sent nine students to Geneva last month to debate international issues at the 1995 Harvard World Model United Nations Conference, where about 150 students represented their countries on eight different simulated UN committees, including the Security Council and the International Court of Justice.
"It was a great multicultural experience," said Rebecca Morss, a graduate student in earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences. "You don't usually meet people from Croatia in your everyday life, even at MIT, where there are people from all over." The MIT delegation had an international flavor itself, with only four of the nine students born in the US. Others from MIT were Maria-Elena Mayorga, a junior in biology, and graduate students Sarah De Rocher and James Ellison of political science, Stephane Couturier of aeronatutics and astronautics, Andrew Green of chemical engineering, Ulrich Knirsch of ocean engineering, and Wai-Kit Lau and Rajeev Surati of electrical engineering and computer science.
Mr. Ellison and Mr. Knirsch also met with UN Under-Secretary General Vladmir Petrovsky at the UN Office at Geneva to report on the progress of the Model UN conference.
"It opened my mind to understanding how and why our peers from all over the globe perceive international issues differently," Ms. De Rocher said. "I've learned about parliamentary procedure and how to speak clearly, persuasively and extemporaneously. But it is more than just pontificating: the purpose of the exercise is to think about solutions to the world's problems, to learn about the negotiating process, building compromise, and why the UN isn't always effective."
"Having participants from a `techie' school clearly added another dimension to the committee proceedings," Mr. Lau added.
As for the city of Geneva itself, Mr. Knirsch reported that "the only things that are affordable are pocket knives and good chocolate."
The trip was supported by the Offices of the Provost, the Associate Provost, andthe Deans of Architecture, Engineering, Graduate School, Humanities, Science, and Undergraduate Affairs, as well as the Center for International Studies and the Technology and Policy Program.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 24, 1995.