Wired reports on the fascinating story of Mohan Srivastava, a geological statistician who found statistical anomalies that enabled him to win at scratch lottery games. The story reminded me of an incident in the 1988 Fall Semester at Purdue University when the Society of Physics Students cracked the Burger King “Triple Jump Checkers” game.

“Triple Jump Checkers” was one of the largest promotional efforts ever when it came out in 1988. Every game piece was potentially a winner (typically of a small drink, less often of small fries), however there were several options for scratching your way across the check board, substantially reducing the odds. The game piece also included additional prize pieces that could be collected and assembled to win a cruise, a dream house, or a Pontiac Grand Prix. A vintage Burger King commercial describing the promotion is available:

Here’s another commercial.

Unfortunately for Burger King, whoever designed the game piece was lazy and did not randomize the checker jump game with respect to the prize pieces. One Purdue physics student noted that a game piece with the same prize pieces always had the same checker jump solution. From then on, the race began to tabulate all the winning checker jump moves for any game piece based on the associated prize pieces. Soon, the chalkboard in the physics student lounge had a complete listing of the winning moves and every piece was a winner. We’d go across the street from the physics building to Burger King to claim our drink or fries, buy another snack, get another game piece and repeat. The fun only lasted a few days before the manager insisted they were out of game pieces and ended the promotion.

Apparently the West Lafayette, Indiana franchisee was not the only one unhappy about the promotion:

Although franchisees have criticized Burger King’s advertising efforts for serveral years, the grousing hit new heights with the recently concluded Triple Jump Checkers promotion. Lavely had boasted that the $140 million sweepstakes, which awarded cash and prizes to customers who won a scratch-off card game, would boost traffic by 7 percent to 12 percent.

“We ended up discounting a lot of food to customers who were coming into our restaurants anyway,” lamented Gary Cain, a franchisee in Battle Creek, Mich.


Radioactive decay rates are generally thought to be invariant constants of nature. Some minor temperature dependent effects have been observed, but even those remain elusive. Now however, researchers at Purdue and elsewhere argue that they have detected solar influences on radioactive decay rates. They claim the decay rates of certain isotopes of radon (226Ra) and silicon (32Si) vary according to the distance of the Earth from the Sun.  They hypothesize that the flux of solar neutrinos from the Sun may influence certain radioisotope decay rates. Further, during a solar flare in 2006, the researchers claim to have observed a variation in decay rates. In fact, they also claim to have spotted variations in decay rate on about a 33 day long cycle – just slower than the 22 day rate at which the Sun rotates. Other researchers are skeptical.

One of the leading proponents of the idea is Purdue physics professor, Ephraim Fischbach. I did not have the pleasure of taking a class from Professor Fischbach during my undergraduate tenure at the Purdue Physics Department [BS (Honors Physics) 1990], but I did attend a couple of his lectures and found them fascinating. I was at Purdue when Prof. Fischbach was a leading proponent of a supposed “fifth force” that acts counter to conventional gravity. My suspicion is that this solar link to radioactive decay will again turn out to be “experimental noise,” difficult to reliably replicate and probably a statistical anomaly or other subtle perturbation or variation in the measurement equipment. But I applaud Prof. Fischbach for being willing to stick his neck out in pursuit of novel physical phenomena. Taking chances and drawing attention to curious results such as these is what enables physics  to advance.

Hat Tip: Watt’s Up With That?

© 2010-14 Hans Schantz except as noted. Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha

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