Go figure — Yale mathematician is a TV game show pro

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Mathematician Nathan Kaplan sometimes likes to play Connect Four against himself.

Once again, Yale mathematician Nathan Kaplan has packed up his polynomials and hit the TV game show circuit.

Kaplan, a Gibbs Assistant Professor in Mathematics, will be a contestant on the syndicated TV program “Let’s Ask America,” in an episode airing May 8. He participated in the show via Skype from his Dunham Lab office, with a Yale pennant and Pascal’s Triangle — expanding rows of binomial coefficients as visually entertaining as any TV graphic — in the background.

The show polls Americans on a variety of topics and asks contestants to predict the responses. “I was the ‘math guy,’” Kaplan explained. “The other contestants were a new mom from Ohio, a fitness model from California, and a Colorado youth pastor who plays the guitar.”

The episode was recorded last fall, but true to the game show code of honor, Kaplan, 29, has not revealed the outcome. He’s no novice to the format, after all. Last year, he competed on the Ryan Seacrest-hosted “Million Second Quiz,” and in 2009 he was a contestant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” He’s won $25,000 from his TV gamesmanship, he estimated.

“I was in particular excited about his ‘Million Second Quiz’ appearance,” said Giulio Tiozzo, Kaplan’s colleague in the Department of Mathematics. “Unfortunately, he lost at the tiebreaker, but he was definitely on top of things. He’s extremely friendly and fun. I think that makes him a great candidate for a game show.”

Tiozzo said he’ll be rooting for Kaplan this time around, as well. He predicted that many of Kaplan’s students will be intrigued, too. Win or lose, Tiozzo said, it will be a victory over the social stereotype of mathematicians as cold, nerdy characters devoid of creativity.

In a larger sense, being on TV is part of Kaplan’s mission to promote math in the public realm. By his calculation, math is much too joyful to be confined to the classroom.

That’s why he spent a Friday in the basement of the Museum of Mathematics, in Manhattan, playing 3D tic-tac-toe with visitors; it’s also why he once trekked out to Long Island on a Saturday to talk about sphere packing (a geometry term for arrangements of non-overlapping spheres in a defined space) with a local math circle.

A few years ago, Kaplan taught a mini course at Harvard on “Math and Games.” He’s fluent in the online and tabletop strategy game Connect Four and Sudoku puzzles, and he’s highly interested in the math behind the board game Mastermind. “I have some fun projects in mind,” he said.

One thing that puzzles him, however, is the notion that math is dull. How can math be boring, he asked, when it is at the heart of everything from baseball statistics to the latest smartphone app? Kaplan suggested that some folks may not be giving math enough of a chance to discover its natural pizazz.

All of which brings him back to the matter of TV game shows. Whether he’s traveled to a TV studio or participated from the comfort of his campus office, he’s found the experience to be positive. “Those shows are about having fun,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to present serious, academic work, as exciting and fun.”

It’s also a pretty small community of contestants.

“I know someone who was on ‘Jeopardy!’ over the summer last year,” Kaplan said. “I met her in the green room on ‘Millionaire.’ You know, your conditional probability of being on a second game show is much higher after being on the first one.”

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Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332