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 Betty 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!

When was the Bourbaki wedding?

It’s great fun trying to decode some of the puns contained in Betti Bourbaki’s wedding invitation. Below a photograph, taken on May 13th 1939, of three of the practical jokers (from left to right : Ralph Boas, Frank Smithies and Andre Weil), the others were Claude Chabauty, Weil’s wife Eveline and Louis Bouckaert (from Louvain).

Part of this picture is on the front cover of the book Lion Hunting & other Mathematical Pursuits. This book clarifies the ‘Secrétaire de l’Oevre du Sou du Lion’-phrase as well as some of the names on the card.

Inspired by the Bourbaki-hoax, a group of postdoctoral fellows visiting Princeton University in 1937-1938 (Boas, Smithies and John Tuckey) published their inventions, allegedly devised by Hector Pétard (aka ‘H(oist) W(ith) O(wn) Petard’ after the Shakespeare line “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer, hoist with his own petard…” Hamlet act III scene IV) who was writing under the pseudonym of E.S. Pondiczery. Pétard’s existence was asserted in the paper “A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Big-Game Hunting” Amer. Math. Monthly 45 (1938) 446-447.

Smithies recalls the spring 1939 period in Cambridge as follows : “The climax of the academic year, as far as we were concerned, came in the Easter term. André Weil, Claude Chabauty, and Louis Bouckaert (from Louvain) were all in Cambridge, and the proposal was mooted that a marriage should be arranged between Bourbaki’s daughter Betti and Hector Pétard; the marriage announcement was duly printed in the canonical French style – on it Pétard was described as the ward of Ersatz Stanislas Pondiczery – and it was circulated to the friends of both parties. A couple of weeks later the Weils, Louis Bouckaert, Max Krook (a South African astrophysicist), Ralph and myself made a river excursion to Grantchester by punt and canoe to have tea at the Red Lion; there is a photograph of Ralph and myself, with our triumphantly captured lion between us and André Weil looking benevolently on.”

From this and the date of the photograph (May 13th 1939) one can conclude that the marriage-card was drawn up around mid april 1939. As weddings tend to follow their announcement by a couple of months, this contradicts the following passage from Notice sur la Vie et l ‘oeuvre de Nicolas Bourbaki by an unidentified author :

“Nominated as Privat-Dozent at the University of Dorpat in 1913, he (that is, N. Bourbaki) married two years later; a single girl, Betti, married in 1938 to the Lion hunter H. Pétard, was born out of this marriage.”

But then, when was the Bourbaki-Pétard wedding scheduled? Surely, a wedding announcement should provide that information. Here’s the relevant part :

“The trivial isomorphism (aka the sacrament of matrimony) will be given to them by P. Adic, of the Diophantine Order, at the Principal Cohomology of the Universal Variety, the 3 Cartember, year VI, at the usual hour.”

Here’s my guess : the first Bourbaki-meeting took place December 10th 1934. Actually, it was a ‘proto-Bourbaki-meeting’, but nevertheless founding members such as [Jean Delsarte counted 1934 as the first Bourbaki year as is clear from the ‘Remarque’ at the top of his notes of the first meeting : 34+25=59, trying to figure out when the 25-year festivity was going to be held …

Thus, if 1934 is year 1 of the Bourbaki-calender, year VI should be 1939. The notules also give a hint of ‘the usual hour’. In the 1934-1940 period, the Bourbakis met twice a month before the monday-afternoon seminar, at 12 o’clock sharp, the ‘sacred hour’, for a meeting over lunch.

Remains the ‘Cartembre’-puzzle. We know ‘Septembre (7), Novembre (9), Decembre (10)’ so if ‘Cart’ is short for ‘Quatre’ (4), Cartembre might be June. I guess the wedding was scheduled to be held on June 3rd, 1939 at 12h.

It fits with the date the announcement was drawn up and June 3rd, 1939 sure enough was a saturday, the ‘canonical’ day for a wedding. Remains the problem of the wedding place. Suggestions anyone?