# Burning Man's Mathematical Underbelly

(scientificamerican.com)

134 points | by extarial 275 days ago

• tibbon 274 days ago

> you can get everybody onto the same page by talking about the complex plane in terms of the layout of Black Rock City: the Man is at zero, Center Camp (Esplanade and 6:00) is at i, the main entrance is around - 2i, the 3:00 and 9:00 plazas are at ± 1, and the Temple (a nondenominational, pan-belief, transient, and intentionally flammable structure) is at + i.

While this is accurate, after seven years of attending Burning Man this is the first time that I've heard anyone describe the city layout - even after spending a pretty significant amount of time at self-identifying geek camps like The Institute.

• bonniemuffin 274 days ago

Hm, I think there's a typo in the article: center camp would be at -i, not i.

Anyway, it seems a bit strange to me to use the burning man map (a polar coordinate system) to describe a Cartesian-style grid like the complex plane.

• tlrobinson 274 days ago

I read that paragraph as a joke, but sometimes it's hard to know what's a joke out there...

• mkstowegnv 274 days ago

A nice article for someone who knows nothing about Burning Man. If you've been, you will learn little that you don't already know. Burners choose to play in a difficult, often uncomfortable environment. They have a higher than average desire to be challenged - by everything from esoteric math and physics discussions to learning (as novices) moderately advanced contradancing (a radically inclusive danceform [1] that has been analyzed with matrices [2], disclaimer - my camp).

> They have a higher than average desire to be challenged

... perhaps somebody's ego needs to be challenged ... ;)

• elcinr 274 days ago

>They have a higher than average desire to be challenged

A lot of them also take a lot of MDMA and drink a lot of alcoholic beverages. There's something for everyone at BM.

• lifthearth 274 days ago

Hangovers are hell in that environment. If you got to burning man for the free drinks you're an idiot and won't come back. MDMA is fun to make a night of but not the drug of choice out there.

• DrHuman 274 days ago

What's the drug of choice out there?

• lifthearth 274 days ago

Sleep deprivation, bicycling, lots of water and downtempo electronica.

• bonniemuffin 274 days ago

I generally recommend the playa shandy: lukewarm Tecate with a scoop of gatorade powder mixed into it. Hydrating, requires no refrigeration, and it's got what plants crave: it's got electrolytes.

• pstuart 274 days ago

Alcohol is #1.

All of the above, and some you've never heard of before.

• bpp 274 days ago

You seem to be implying a dichotomy; it's definitely a work hard/play hard kind of town.

• resu_nimda 274 days ago

Perhaps there's some kind of correlation there? The science/math/tech world is rife with users of amphetamines (including the ones that are prescribed for use by medical professionals, e.g. Adderall, Vyvanse, etc.). Mathemetician Paul Erdos famously championed them.

Maybe you can explain why you felt the need to point this out with such disdain?

• jonnybgood 274 days ago

> Mathemetician Paul Erdos famously championed them.

He took them but he didn’t champion them. He especially didn't want people to think they needed amphetamines to do mathematics.

• resu_nimda 274 days ago

Ok perhaps "championed" was a strong word but he was open about the fact that he considered them important for his own mathematical abilities.

And I am by no means trying to encourage people to take them if they don't want to, just to accept that others can do it responsibly and it's ok. I'm just bewildered by the hardline "drugs are bad, m'kay" stance that many people take. Whatever research we have been able to do on amphetamines has generally shown them to be safe and even beneficial for human use (when used appropriately).

• Uhhrrr 274 days ago

The BM part wasn't so interesting, but the questions they were pondering were fun.

• fipple 274 days ago

What does “radically inclusive danceform” mean? Looks like you’re trying to make a fun dance seem like a political revolution.

• mkstowegnv 274 days ago

Contradancing does not require any specific footwork and revolves around dancers flowing through and bonding with eventually all the other dancers in a line. It is an all ages activity (from babies in papooses to dancers pushing 100). It is possible for many with disabilities. Around the US I know contradancers who are completely blind and others who are deaf, are amputees or who are in (athlete style) wheelchairs. Engrained in the subculture is the idea that dancers gently guide other dancers who are drifting off course and they constantly adjust their style and speed to match the needs and preferences of each new dancer they meet.

• tlrobinson 274 days ago

"Radical inclusion" is one of the guiding principles of Burning Man: https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-princ... I don't think it's particularly political.

• fipple 274 days ago

Is McDonalds radically inclusive because they welcome the stranger with open arms?

• woah 273 days ago

In the burning man sense, yes

• hockeybias 274 days ago

That 'higher than average desire' tidbit is oh so very measurable...

• angersock 274 days ago

Surely not all burners come off this smugly?

• QML 274 days ago

We weren’t always so lucky. One year, before we’d even finished setting up the booth, a cadre of MIT undergraduate physicists stumped us with ‘Soap bubbles physically solve minimal surface problems. Are there any other physical phenomena that quickly solve NP-type problems?’

Anyone have more resources on this? I could only find a brief overview by Scott Aaronson [1].

• westoncb 274 days ago

The main thing I wonder about this is whether it's misleading to say the soap bubble is 'solving' a problem of high computational complexity.

If we were to form a description of its state evolving, framed as a computation, then that computation would be in such and such a complexity class—sure. But if you want to go ahead and say that soap bubble is literally computing in the same sense, you're making a number of implicit philosophical commitments that I have yet to see a justification for when this subject is brought up.

Edit: to clarify, what I'm getting at is whether we're using it to solve what is a problem for us, or whether it literally has to 'find a solution' in order to get into the state it gets into, so that principles of computational complexity etc. would be somehow applicable to what it's doing.

• guest2143 274 days ago

My grad school professor was at a bar with a consultant friend who was trying to find the optimal wiring paths for routing expensive electric cables.

My professor asked for the change in his pocket: they went to the hardware store and got plexiglass, dowel and drill. In the hotel room, the put together a model of the points to connect between the plexiglass sides and dunked it in the soapy hotel tub.

the pattern the soap bubbles formed was the shortest path between the electrical tower model.

• zawerf 274 days ago

I know this as the Euclidean Steiner Tree problem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steiner_tree_problem

There are some videos doing exactly what you described: https://youtu.be/dAyDi1aa40E?t=95

• westoncb 274 days ago

Okay, that makes sense to me—we can set up the physical system's initial conditions to mirror some problem we want solved, then let it do its thing and grab the solution back afterward.

That definitely feels better justified than the view I had of it, though it still has some weakness, I think.

From my understanding the justification for calling it computation comes down to: we can use the physical system to solve a problem that we would ordinarily approach computationally, therefore it must be computing too. Right?

• stevenhuang 274 days ago

> From my understanding the justification for calling it computation comes down to: we can use the physical system to solve a problem that we would ordinarily approach computationally, therefore it must be computing too. Right?

To me, it feels like the intention of "computation" as used here is to give us a convenient way to describe what the physical system _appears_ to be doing (solving something the only way we know how--computationally) as opposed to saying: the rules of our universe influenced these particles to act in such a way that manifested in something interesting to us (an efficient solution to some problem).

Very interesting to think then if we can leverage physical systems (specifically non-quantum, to make that more interesting) to solve NP problems.

• salty_biscuits 274 days ago

It's an analog computer, just not a general purpose one. It solves one problem well.

• JoeAltmaier 274 days ago

Its an analog computer, plain and simple! Just because its not digital, doesn't mean its not 'really computing'

• stevenhuang 274 days ago

> physically solving

Seems to me you missed the emphasis on the _physical_ part. I don't see any philosophical quandaries from that since it was clear to me OP was not proposing the bubbles literally computed things.

• westoncb 274 days ago

That's fair—rereading more closely, their terminology is neutral on the matter. I jumped ahead because typically when I see this brought up that's the main point folks are talking about: since the physical system is 'computing' whatever, then let's get into the limits and capabilities and classifications of the computation etc., skipping over the question of whether it actually should be called 'computation'.

It's also just an interesting question imo—so I'd be okay hearing a discussion about it whether the original statement introduced the philosophical quandary or not.

• sevensor 274 days ago

I had to read the headline three times before it would parse correctly. Guess I should have just clicked on the link. I read "Man's Mathematical Underbelly" as the object of "Burning".

• pouta 274 days ago

Wow, what a great read. Thanks for sharing!

• bberenberg 274 days ago

I met Spencer in NY. Super cool guy, does really interesting research outside of BM.

• steve76 274 days ago

Flip the script. The landscape of most modern math really does amount to just a drunken homosexual orgy.

• steve76 274 days ago

And to add to that comment, so much of modern life is due to that. In the problem of Theodicy, I blame the drunken sex glutton, not nature.

• edm0nd 274 days ago

1 drug + 2 drugs = 3 drugs

• api_or_ipa 274 days ago

I encourage you to think constructively how your commentary can further a discussion which, by both the article and other comments, has proceeded well beyond infantile jokes and worn-out stereotypes.