Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
Great debates in this country have tackled many weighty issues, such as communism vs. democracy. Monday night saw several eminent MIT faculty members take on an even starchier question: latkes vs. hamentashen.
The tongue-in-cheek debate, sponsored for the second year by MIT Hillel, argued the merits of two traditional Jewish foods. Latkes are the fried potato pancakes eaten at Hanukkah; hamentashen are open-topped, triangular pastries with jelly that are eaten at the festive holiday of Purim, which is coming up this weekend. Hamentashen ("Hamen's pockets") are named after Hamen, the evil ruler in the Biblical book of Esther. The story, also called the megillah, is read aloud at Purim in its entirety.
Monday's debate began with a hamentashen flip to see which team would go first (a latke wasn't used because you can't tell the difference between the two sides, noted emcee Donald Sadoway, professor of materials science and engineering).
Professor Jeffrey Hoffman of aeronautics and astronautics, who has flown on the space shuttle, advanced his arguments in a PowerPoint presentation titled "Latkes in Space." In a zero-gravity environment where it's hard to tell top from bottom, a latke is an ideal food, he said. Anything that creates crumbs or has sharp edges is highly undesirable on a space ship, he added, since crumbs can float into filters or circuits and sharp edges can create tears in a sealed vessel. Thus, a round latke stuck together with oil is clearly superior to a three-cornered hamentashen with a cookie-like consistency, Hoffman argued.
Also in the pro-latke camp were professors Edward Farhi of physics and Andrew Kadak of nuclear engineering. Kadak affectionately described the pancake's rounded shape--which is similar to the materials used in the pebble-bed nuclear reactors he studies.
"The latke people are on a slippery slope, both literally and figuratively," countered Professor of Biology Robert Weinberg. "Do not listen to their deep-fried, sauteed arguments. Where, I ask, do latkes find a niche in a USDA food pyramid?"
Also speaking for hamentashen was Professor Anne McCants of history, who gave a discourse on the potato's past. The tuber was unknown outside America until the 16th century, so latkes were not a historically significant element of Jewish cuisine, she said. Professor Robert Rose of materials science and engineering added a warning that latkes are threatening to be the next weapons of mass destruction.
The points were well taken by about 400 laughing spectators in Room 10-250, but the debate ended in a tie, so the burning issue of latkes vs. hamentashen will be tackled again next year.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 3, 2004.