16 ways to capture a lion (in 1938)

A classic among mathematical jokes is the paper in the August/September 1938 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly “A contribution to the mathematical theory of big game hunting” by one Hector Petard of Princeton who would marry, one year later, Nicolas Bourbaki’s daughter Betti.


There are two main sources of information on the story behind this paper. There are Frank Smithies’ “Reminiscences of Ralph Boas” in the book Lion Hunting & Other Mathematical Pursuits and the transcript of an interview with John Tukey and Albert Tucker at Princeton University on 11 April 1984, part of the oral-history project on the Princeton mathematics community in the 1930s.

Smithies recalls being part of a lively group of people in Princeton during the academic year 1937/38 including Arthur Brown, Ralph Traber, Lyman Spitzer, Hugh Dowker, John Olmsted, Henry Walman, George Barnard, John Tukey, Mort Kanner (a physicist), Dick Jameson (a linguist) and Ralph Boas. Smithies writes:

“At some time that winter we were told about the mathematical methods for lion-hunting that have been devised in Gottingen, and several of us came up with new ones; who invented which method is now lost to memory. Ralph (Boas) and I decided to write up all the methods known to us, with a view to publication, conforming as closely as we could to the usual style of a mathematical paper. We choose H. Petard as a pseudonym (“the engineer, hoist with his own petard”; Hamlet, Act III, Scene IV), and sent the paper to the Americal Mathematical Monthly, over the signature of E. S. Pondiczery.”

Pondiczery was Princeton’s answer to Nicolas Bourbaki, and in the interview John Tukey recalls from (sometimes failing) memory:

“Well, the hope was that at some point Ersatz Stanislaus Pondiczery at the Royal Institute of Poldavia was going to be able to sign something ESP RIP. Then there’s the wedding invitation done by the Bourbakis. It was for the marriage of Betti Bourbaki and Pondiczery. It was a formal wedding invitation with a long Latin sentence, most of which was mathematical jokes, three quarters of which you could probably decipher. Pondiczery even wrote a paper under a pseudonym, namely “The Mathematical Theory of Big Game Hunting” by H. Petard, which appeared in the Monthly. There were also a few other papers by Pondiczery.”

Andrew Tucker then tells the story of the paper’s acceptance:

“Moulton, the editor of the Monthly at that time, wrote to me saying that he had this paper and the envelope was postmarked Princeton and he assumed that it was done by some people in math at Princeton. He said he would very much like to publish the paper, but there was a firm policy against publishing anything anonymous. He asked if I, or somebody else that he knew and could depend on, would tell him that the authorship would be revealed if for any reason it became legally necessary. I did not know precisely who they were, but I knew that John [Tukey] was one of them. He seemed to be in the thick of such things. John agreed that I could accept Moulton’s terms. I sent a letter with this assurance to Moulton and he went ahead and published it.”

I’ve made a timeline of the 16 different methods contained in the paper, keeping their original numbering and formulation. Enjoy!