NPR logo The Math And Science Of Latkes


The Math And Science Of Latkes

Latkes. iStockphoto hide caption

toggle caption



Tomorrow evening marks the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish "Festival of Lights" and an eight-day-long excuse to eat fried potato pancakes known as latkes.

This holiday season also marks the return of the Latke-Hamentash Debates, a tradition that began at the University of Chicago in 1946, but has since spread to other academic institutions. The debates feature regalia-clad academics marshaling all the rigor of their disciplines in support of one holiday treat over another: latkes, the fried-potato American Hanukkah staple; or hamantaschen, a triangular-shaped pastry associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim.

In years past, latkes and hamantaschen have been defended (or vilified) using appeals to topology, string theory, literary theory, history and more. This year's University of Chicago debate, held on Nov. 25, featured a chemist, a historian of religion, an economist, a physicist, a mathematician and a professor of Slavic studies.

One of my favorite arguments was put forth by Diane Herrmann, a mathematician who raised the critical question of which holiday goody better aligns with the newest Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice. To find out her answer, check out this clip from the debates:


Advocates for latkes can console themselves tomorrow evening with an extra helping!

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo