While presidential elections are normally associated with debates, Jewish food is not. However, tonight, one of the largest lecture halls at MIT was packed to capacity with students eager to hear six MIT professors argue for their favorite Jewish delicacy – either Latke or Hamentashen. One is a sweet and versatile triangular dessert, the other is a fried potato pancake (can you detect my bias?) What makes this debate unique is that the professors use their own field of expertise to support their position.
The three professors in favor of the hamentashen were:
– Hazel Sive- Professor of Biology (sitting on the left)
– Ari Epstein- Terrascope lecturer (sitting in the middle)
– Erik Demaine- Professor Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (sitting on the right)
The three professors in favor of the latke were:
– Peter Dourmaskin- Professor of Physics (far left in picture below)
– Patrick Winston – Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science (middle left)
– Stephen Van Evera- Professor of Political Science (middle right)
The debate was moderated by Jeremy Wolfe, who used to teach a wildly popular Intro to Psychology class and is now a teacher in Concourse. (He’s on the far left of the Team Hamentashen picture, standing up.)
After a humorous introduction by Wolfe and a Ramen noodle toss (“heads” won), it was decided that the Latke team would be the first to present. Prof. Dourmaskin stepped up to the plate and applied his physics knowledge to explain why latke is a “major food” and that Galileo discovered that a latke and potato fall to the ground at the same time.
Next was Dr. Ari Epstein, representing the Hamentashen team. In order to understand his slides, I’ll explain Terrascope. Terrascope is a project-based class where freshmen solve big problems like protecting the ecology of the Galapagos Islands. In this vein, Dr. Epstein had a hands-on demonstration. His assistants handed out paper plates to everyone, and the half of the lecture hall sitting on the “Hamentashen” side also received colorful stickers. The people with stickers were instructed to decorate their plates with stickers (representing filling that they wanted. Hamentashen can be filled with many things, like apricots, poppy seeds, Nutella, and cheese.) Everyone was then told to fold their paper to resemble a hamentashen. Clearly it was better to have a delicacy-filled hamentashen than something that resembled a dry, folded latke.
Next, Professor Winston showed off his technological prowess using a spiffy computer interface that he made. As shown below, he demonstrated the intelligence of a Turing machine that he programmed by asking it latke and hamentashen-related questions.
The onus was then back to the hamentashen team. Professor Sive defended the hamentashen using a systems biology approach. She showed single-celled diatoms that have a striking resemblance to hamentashen, showed the life cycle of the “organism” h.tashen, and then explored the genetic networks that build it. Biologists commonly study mutants to understand the function of genes, and thus she showed three hamentashen mutants. Of course, one mutant was the “arrested development” hamentashen, otherwise known as a latke. This mutant was extremely simple and boring, compared to the superior and highly evolved hamentashen.
Second to last was Professor Van Evera. As a Political Science professor in an election year, his defense of latkes resorted to significant mudslinging. At one point, he had the crowd chanting “USA, USA, Latke, Latke, USA!” The propaganda was palpable.
Finally, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Erik Demaine used his linguistics and geometry prowess to explore the natural superiority of hamentashen. First, he argued to change the name of the debate from “Latke vs. Hamentashen” to “Hamentashen vs. Latke” (alphabetical order, it’s only fair!) Next, he discovered that an anagram of the word Hamentaschen is the phrase “enHances math.” Then, as someone who studies discrete and computational geometry, he argued that perfect circles don’t exist, and latkes are circular, thus there are no perfect latkes. His last argument was that circles don’t tile, so as you’re trying to cook them, you lose heat between the latkes and this contributes to global warming.
After a five minute brainstorming session, the teams provided their rebuttals. Team Latke had pre-prepared a rebuttal in the form of a video. They showed a researcher in the Artificial Intelligence lab giving a latke and hamentashen to a furry, cuddly robot. The robot embraced the latke and rejected the hamentashen.
In the end, a blind vote was taken and (not surprisingly) it was a tie. This ensures that there will be yet another debate next year, so hopefully some of you guys will get to see it. I assure you that the real thing was much better than my description…