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Student challenge requires search for tiny things

Veteran Knoxville algebra tutor Dr. David Williams, a resident of Knoxville’s Pond Gap community, is at it again.

This time, he’s challenging Farragut and Knox County mathematics students, through grade 12, to seek out infinitesimals — to find Knoxville’s tiniest minutiae and explain their significance.

The contest seeks handy micro- or nano-numbers relevant somehow to Knoxville and Knox County.

Once a winning nano-number is found, during competition that ends Sunday, Oct. 1, Williams may even devise an appropriate “historical marker” to mark the site of the county’s smallest (whatever!) — “if it can be measured and marked at all,” he noted.

It’s all part of Williams’ annual Math-Mindedness contest, intended to spark interest in the algebra tutor’s favorite subject. Winners get math-related prizes.

Farragut and West Knox area students, egged on by math teachers, previously have been extremely successful in winning Williams’ annual contests, some of which entail biblical overtones.

This year’s contest, for example, has a bonus question based on a number found in 2 Chronicles 4:2.

In 1997, Williams served up a similar math challenge by asking students to compute such mega- and giga-sized numbers as watt-hours of electricity generated annually by TVA for use in Knox County homes and businesses.

That year, Tucker Bland, then a Webb School pupil, won by computing the number of genes in Knox County’s gene pool — 27 sextillion.

Other contestants probed unfathomable areas, some expressed by numbers followed by 21 zeroes — the number of taste buds on the tongues of Knox County residents, for example.

For that 1997 competition, one contestant used math to conclude that more than 200 trillion dust particles float around Knox County on an average high-allergy day. Others computed the total annual income of all Knoxville residents.

This autumn, Williams is thinking much smaller. By negative powers of 10.

He challenges math pupils to find the smallest figure or statistic imaginable and then to use their math skills to compute it.

It may be the weight of an average sand particle on the shores of Fort Loudoun Lake; the distance a Knox County kudzu vine grows per second on a humid, summer night; the number of mu-mesons within atomic nuclei in a game day football at Neyland Stadium; the diameter of a hair follicle on the average Knox County flea, or the weight of an average Knox dandelion seed, wafting on winds toward the Great Smoky Mountains.

As contest judge, Williams will consider all serious entries, he said; but to be considered, each must demonstrate some relevancy to Knoxville or its environs.

Prizes will be awarded, and winners will appear at the City-County Building to detail their data, gleaned from their research, for Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam.

Has Williams any hints or contest clues for contestants this year?

“I’d encourage them to think in terms of negative numbers, pehaps in decimals,” Williams said. Use of logarithms or negative exponents might be appropriate.

For faxed contest entry forms, call Williams at 865-256-1828, or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Dr. David Williams, 505 Hollywood Road, Knoxville, TN 37909.


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