Mathematician's Dog Knows Calculus

At the point where Elvis dove into the water, Pennings stuck his screwdriver into the sand, grabbed his tape measure and followed Elvis to the ball. That gave him the measurements that he needed, and he already had Elvis's swimming and running speed.

Returning to his math lab, Pennings plotted all those points on a graph, and astonishingly, "it turns out that all the choices he made were right in line, or very close, to the optimal choice," he says.

Innate Math Genius

Subsequent expeditions to the shores of Lake Michigan verified the findings, and Pennings was able to build a case strong enough to interest a professional math journal.

Of course, the professor doesn't think Elvis was really doing calculus, at least not in the traditional way. But somehow, innately, he was achieving the same result.

Pennings figures a lot of dogs probably do the same thing, but oddly enough, he suggests, their masters may not be thinking about calculus when they throw a stick or a ball into the water for their dog to fetch.

Elvis is now on sort of a canine lecture tour, helping Pennings explain calculus to students of all ages.

Advanced math does have practical applications, Pennings tells the students. If you end up as an industrialist, he tells them, and you manufacture a certain item, you will need to come up with a formula that will tell you how many you need to manufacture to maximize your profit, or minimize your cost.

And as Elvis would say, if he could speak English, that's calculus.

That's all pretty impressive, but could he really solve a basic problem that baffles many a calculus student? Could he, for example, determine the hydrostatic pressure at the base of a dam?

Not a chance.

But if he ever does, we better be ready to play that old theme song from The Twilight Zone.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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