06 December 2009

Mathematicians in training

First off, if you haven't played Set, you really should, because you're just the sort of person who would love it. It's a clever idea elegantly executed, and it just happens to be great competitive fun. I taught the kids to play, and the four-year-old has a definite edge on the six-year-old. I couldn't be more pleased.

We had a bit of a drive yesterday, and along the way we gave the kids some analogies to puzzle over. You know the sort of thing: “Ice is to water as rock is to what?” This turns out to be engrossing and surprisingly fun. (I might try it with adults sometime. I sense opportunities for nerd humor.) Here the kids were not evenly matched at all. The four-year-old would get the easy ones (cow : moo :: pig : x) but would guess random related words on the harder ones, apparently with equal confidence. The six-year-old saw more clearly what the game was about, so he was able to bring his greater general knowledge to bear.

Why is this post titled “Mathematicians in training”? Well, Set is a transparently mathematical game. There are 81 cards because 81 is 34. The deck is the Cartesian product of four three-element sets. They form some kind of algebraic structure with extraordinary symmetry (of a kind I don't really know anything about—it's not a group—such that I'm tempted to get completely sidetracked here). But the kicker here is, the gameplay itself is mathematical. As far as I can tell, the only good strategy is to try to prove there are no sets.

Analogies are just little homomorphisms, which is to say, structure-preserving transformations. The idea that deep sameness is more interesting than superficial differences is more important to mathematics than numbers.

On the surface it seems like analogies are less mathematical than Set. Appearances can be deceiving.

(P.S. Figured it out. The sets in Set are the cosets of cyclic subgroups of (Z/3Z)4. The symmetry I was referring to above was that after you erase the underlying group operation, there's no privileged element. There are isomorphisms on the deck of cards, preserving the sets, mapping any given card to any other given card.)

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