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The REAL Answer To The Viral Chinese Math Problem “How Old Is The Captain?”

Hey, this is Presh Talwalkar. Here's a math problem that's stumping the Internet right now. This question was asked to 5th graders in China: ''If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats aboard, how old is the ship's captain?'' This problem has gotten a lot of media coverage, and I even covered it in a previous video, But we all missed the real story. This problem was actually devised by French researchers nearly 40 years ago! And it does teach a valuable lesson about math class. So in this video, I'm gonna go over the REAL story, that no media outlet has covered so far.

Before I get to that, I want to quickly go over the media coverage, and what some possible answers have been proposed. So this problem really got coverage around the world. From the South China Morning Post, from RT, from the BBC, from the Washington Post and even in Newsweek. The media coverage focused on solving the problem. The most sensible answer I saw, that was quoted in the BBC, comes from one Weiho commenter who writes: ''The total weight of 26 sheep and 10 goat is 7,700 kilograms, based on the average weight of each animal.'' Now I did a little bit of fact-checking; you would actually get 7,700 POUNDS, if you did this search in Wolfram Alpha, but, let's just forget this little nitpick and go with 7,700 kilograms, so continuing that response: ''In China, if you're driving a ship that has more than 5,000 kilograms of cargo, you need to have possessed a boat license for at least five years. The minimum age for getting a boat's license is 23, so [the captain is] at least 28.'' That's a remarkable leap in logic. But if it sounds too crazy for you, keep in mind that these kinds of deductions are very common in Sherlock Holmes stories.

Take an example from ''The Hound of the Baskervilles''. From examining a walking stick of a man he has NEVER met, Sherlock Holmes deduces the man is under 30 years old, is a family doctor and that he owns a dog. So, the official response in China, is that the question was not a mistake. It was actually meant to be open ended and encourage critical thinking, which is usually not present in Math class. That would be the end of the story, except this problem did NOT have its source in China. The real story is the problem was originally asked by French researchers in 1979. This problem is nearly 40 years old! I learned about the problem's origin from Benjamin Dickman, who has a PhD in Mathematics Education from Columbia University. Benjamin heard about the problem, because he believes that many people in math education have heard about this problem in similar problems, and he tweeted about it.

You could check out his Twitter profile twitter.com/benjamindickman So from the sources that he tweeted and sent, we can actually find, in 1979, French researchers asked first and second graders the following problem: "On the boat, there are 26 sheep and 10 goats. What is the age of the captain?" I couldn't believe it when I was seeing this! This problem has been asked nearly 40 YEARS AGO in ALMOST EXACTLY the same wording! So what was the point of this exercise? Well, from reading some of these sources, the researchers had expected that most students would think the question is absurd. The correct answer would have to be "there is not enough information", But what they found was shocking. More than 3/4 of students actually tried to solve the problem by manipulating the numbers. They said something like ''Okay, the age must be 26 plus 10, which equals 36." Very few students questioned if the problem was even solvable. In fact, this was not just a fluke result.

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