Cookware, Shirts, and a Trip to Mars

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2014-06-05 – Many years ago I read a letter to the newspaper column Hints from Heloise. If you don’t know about this column, let me tell you. Heloise gave tips on household chores and solicited the same from her readers. The letter I read complained about the difficulty of keeping lids together with the various pots and pans to which they belonged.

I can totally relate to this problem. But the solution that the reader offered blew my mind. The reader suggested labeling every pot with a number and labeling the matching lid with the same number. It makes sense. But the reader offered a warning and a solution to an even more sinister problem:

“If you run out of numbers, use letters.”

How many pots (and lids) did this reader have? (She was onto a way for comparing infinite sets used by the mathematician Georg Cantor, but using letters wouldn’t have helped in keeping track of all those pots and lids!)

My son Cal has an amazing number of shirts. He probably doesn’t even realize it, since I am still stuck doing his laundry. I haven’t run out of numbers, but I have run out of hangers. Cal and his friends have discovered that it is possible to buy shirts at thrift stores at a price that is so cheap that it is possible to have a wardrobe of shirts than is greater than the number of hats owned by the Queen of England.

The Queen of England doesn’t have to number her lids because she has people to keep track of these things. She numbers the people.

There’s been a lot of talk lately in the press about interest in human travel to the planet Mars. Yesterday we read a report of the National Research Council talking about the importance of going to Mars and bemoaning the fact that the NASA budget is woefully inadequate to do so. Private interests have jumped in to fill the gap. Thousands of people are signing up to join the first missions.

Cal won’t be going. He has too many shirts.

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