mar-de-plata1

Why go swimming, if you can do math instead inside a room with no windows?

Back in 1997, during my visit to beautiful Mar del Plata in Argentina, I was asked to solve a math problem that I soon realized was close to being unsolvable. The setting was the Banquet for the 38th International Math Olympiad. I was 17 and there was delicious, free food in front of me, so it was pretty impossible to get my attention. Still, the coach of the Romanian team decided to drop by the Greek table to challenge us with the following problem:

Infinite Power: If x^{x^{x^{x^{dots }}}} = 2, find x.

I was pretty hungry and a bit annoyed at the interruption (it is rude to eat and do math at the same time!), so I looked at the problem for a moment and then challenged him back with this one:

Infiniter Power: If x^{x^{x^{x^{dots }}}} = 4, find x.

After a few moments, he looked at me with a puzzled look. He knew I had solved his problem within a few seconds, he was annoyed that I had somehow done it in my head and he was even more annoyed that I had challenged him back with a problem that confounded him.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out why the coach of the Romanian IMO team left our table alone for the rest of the competition.

Good luck!

PS: The rest of the Romanian team (the kids) were really cool. In fact, a few years later, I would hang out with a bunch of them at MIT’s Department of Mathematics, or as my older brother put it, The Asylum.