Is the Elevator Puzzle a Math Paradox or a Paranoid Delusion?


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Who Were the Elevator Puzzle Physicists?

The two physicists were George Gamow and Otto Stern.

Who Was George Gamow?

George Gamow: Photo by Serge Lachinov

George Gamow was born in Odessa, Russia in 1904. His parents were teachers, but his mother died when he was nine years old.

Gamow studied at the University of Odessa and the University of St. Petersburg, but moved to the United States in 1936.

Among his professional interests were optics, nuclear physics and stellar mechanics. Gamow proposed a theory to explain radioactive nuclear decay, and aided research into DNA and the genetic code.

Gamow died at age 64, in 1968.


Who Was Otto Stern?

Photo of Otto Stern courtesy NNDB

Born in Sorau, Germany in 1888, Otto Stern earned his PhD in 1912 at the University of Breslau. He worked with Albert Einstein at the University of Prague and also the University of Zurich.

As his focus shifted from physical chemistry to theoretical physics, he also worked at several other European universities. He then moved to Pittsburgh in 1933 and joined the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Stern was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1943, having contributed to: quantum theory; the molecular beam method for probing atoms; the verification of Maxwell’s laws of velocity distribution in gasses; and the wave nature of molecules.

Stern died in 1969.

Closing the Doors on the Elevator Puzzle

The elevator puzzle is a wonderful blend of science and mathematics. Gamow and Stern noticed it in the real world; anyone can list probabilities for a simplified model with limited floors; and anyone can capture data for themselves.

On the other hand, the elevator puzzle can challenge mathematicians and programmers when dealing with multiple elevators to solve the real-world goal of minimizing wait times and keeping building tenants happy.

Elevator Doors at the Waldorf. Image by Liz Henry

Weisstein, Eric W. Elevator Paradox. MathWorld-A Wolfram Web Resource. Accessed Aug. 26, 2011.
George Gamow. EPS. Accessed Aug. 26, 2011.
Otto Stern – Biography. Nobelprize Org. (1943). Accessed Aug. 26, 2011.

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