Wait For It… a blog by Andy Ross

Mathemagician’s Assistant

Posted on October 25, 2010

The following is an excerpt from my memoir, which covers the three years I spent as a Las Vegas mathemagician’s assistant. It’s called A Boy Cut in Equal Halves. Enjoy:

The Great Nerdkin called me into his dressing room to help him with his pocket protector. The pocket protector is what is known in the backstage world of mathemagic as a “tap.” A tiny radio receiver in the device picks up equation results and “taps” lightly against the mathemagician’s chest, giving him the answer. Nerdkin’s tap had gotten jostled and was stuck in base 12.

The entire grand finale depended on that tap. Without it, The Great Nerdkin was just another street hustling math shark, pulling cube roots out of the air for quarters. The finale is what got him out of the dank Bar Mitzvahs and into the big money. Tech conference money.

We worked on fixing the tap for what seemed like hours, but turned out to be only 1/18th of an hour. Curtain was fast approaching, and no mathemagician is ever late for a show. It implies that you’re bad with numbers.

The Great Nerdkin flung the pocket protector against the mirror and said, “We’re switching over to Bertrand’s Postulate.”

It was a risky move. We’d never successfully pulled off Betrand’s Postulate. It was an untested math trick that applied Chebysev’s proof of Joseph Betrand’s conjecture that there is at least one prime between n and 2n − 2 for every n > 3. If it went wrong, someone could get hurt. Probably me.

“We’ll need a plant in the audience to throw out a Ramanujan prime,” I said, nervously.

“Get Rummy,” roared Nerdkin.

Rummy was former Applied Number Theory professor who’d turned to alcohol when one of his finite fields turned out to be infinite. He’d hang out at the stage door hoping to sell mathemagicians his elliptic curve cryptosystem tricks. He had his moments of lucidity, but only between drinks eight and eleven.

I was already wearing my sequined leotard for the Floating Variable trick. I’d have change into my civilian clothes to reach Rummy before the end of the first act, and then I’d have to get back in time to apply my fake moustache.

Could I make it? Would we be able to pull of the Postulate? I calculated my odds within four decimal points, and they didn’t look good…