Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Puzzle from Terence Tao

I only recently learned that the star mathematician Terence Tao has a blog. A few days ago, he posted this airport-inspired puzzle, which my family and I found entertaining to discuss:
Suppose you are trying to get from one end A of a terminal to the other end B. (For simplicity, assume the terminal is a one-dimensional line segment.) Some portions of the terminal have moving walkways (in both directions); other portions do not. Your walking speed is a constant v, but while on a walkway, it is boosted by the speed u of the walkway for a net speed of v+u. (Obviously, given a choice, one would only take those walkways that are going in the direction one wishes to travel in.) Your objective is to get from A to B in the shortest time possible.

1. Suppose you need to pause for some period of time, say to tie your shoe. Is it more efficient to do so while on a walkway, or off the walkway? Assume the period of time required is the same in both cases.

2. Suppose you have a limited amount of energy available to run and increase your speed to a higher quantity v' (or v'+u, if you are on a walkway). Is it more efficient to run while on a walkway, or off the walkway? Assume that the energy expenditure is the same in both cases.

3. Do the answers to the above questions change if one takes into account the various effects of special relativity? (This is of course an academic question rather than a practical one. But presumably it should be the time in the airport frame that one wants to minimise, not time in one’s personal frame.)

I won't even pretend that I could solve the third problem.

Addendum: Steve Landsburg has previously examined these issues with more of a focus on the economics.