Matroids

One thing that consistently brings me joy is when a funny story or thought from long ago dislodges from the rest of the gumballs in the gumball machine of my mind and rolls to the front of my mind

After my shower this morning, I found myself recalling an incident from grad school.

I was taking a course in combinatorics, and one day the professor decided that we should learn about matroids, a somewhat exotic combinatorial structure which combines and generalizes some aspects of vector spaces and graphs.  (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them, neither had I–and anyway the only thing that matters is the word anyway.)

The most common pronunciation among Americans is MAY-troid, but the professor this day had a subtle accent, which distorted some vowels a bit, so it was pretty hard for people of my generation who’ve spent any time playing video games not to be thinking of a different word.

So there was sporadic stifled chuckling and exchanged glances as the lecture went on.  The basic gist of the lecture was that even though relatively few people know what a matroid is, they actually show up in problems more than you’d expect, and now we would know to be looking for them, and have some basic techniques for analyzing them.

So when the professor said to be alert, since you never know when there might be a matroid lurking under the surface of a problem and asked if, now, we would know what to do with a matroid when we saw it, several of us answered as one.

Freeze it! And shoot it with missiles!

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