The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

The legend of the mathematician and the baker

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There is a legend in the mathematics community that centers around Henri Poincaré, the famous mathematician, meting out sweet, sweet justice to a dishonest baker. Perhaps it is untrue, but when you read about it, you'll wish it were.

If anyone tells you about how food was better in the good old days, don't listen. Although there are plenty of problems with the current food system, the past wasn't replete with wholesome victuals. Laws, and entire branches of government, were sicked on grocers to prevent them from cheating their customers. Bakery was the most infamous profession. Bakers would put chalk in their bread to whiten in, and sawdust to make it heavier. Sometimes, they would eschew poisoning their customers and simply shrink down loaves to make people believe they were buying more food than they got.


Legend has it that one such dishonest baker took on one of math's greatest geniuses. Henri Poincaré took on the three-body problem - how three objects in space affect each other's motion - and spun that out into the beginnings of chaos theory, so light loaves were nothing to him. He weighed his bread for a year, and charted the weight. He noticed that the distribution of the weight formed a curve, centered at around 950 grams. Clearly, the baker had lightened his loaves. Poincaré reported the baker to the police, and the man was fined.


The morning after he had reported the man, Poincaré walked back into the shop, presumably brushing off the hate-eyes he was getting from the baker, and got another loaf. He continued weighing his bread for another year. This time, the bread was always at the satisfactory weight of one kilogram. He reported the baker to the police again, and again the man was fined.

The loaves, though all to advertised specifications, had no curve - or at least not the curve that Poincaré had seen before. The weights were not all the same. The heavy side of the curve looked pretty normal, but the light side was sparsely populated. The entire curve was squished to the right. Poincaré deduced that the baker had kept his normal baking habits, and just handed Poincaré the heaviest loaf he found.

There's no record of what happened the third year. Either the baker, who at this point we might be justified in pitying, changes his ways or Breadman hounded him to the asylum or the grave. You be the judge.

Top Image: Whitney

Via The Drunkard's Walk, Houston Statistics.