The number nine is popular in the retail pricing game, $999.99 instead of $1,000.00 for example, but it's hardly sought after as a choice on the number pad of a microwave oven.
"On most microwaves the nine does not get used very much," said Darcy Best, a second-year master's of mathematics student at the University of Lethbridge.
Best and his teammates, Chris Martin, a third-year computer science student, and Hugh Ramp, a fourth-year physics student, had to find a way to make sure the number nine was no longer a member of the lonely hearts club as part of the Rocky Mountain Regional ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest.
"The idea is that if I tell you that, say, a pizza pop has to be microwaved for two minutes you want to find a time that is around two minutes that uses the most number of nines, so one-minute and 59 seconds. It's probably close enough to microwave and you're actually using a nine," Best said.
Pitted against 48 other teams, they had to find a solution as fast as possible that would ensure as many nines as possible were used, regardless of the cooking time involved. While the problem isn't a matter of national security, math types like to wrap their heads around all kinds of complicated problems.
"It sounds kind of dumb but it's an interesting problem to try and solve," Martin said.
"These guys, they train a lot so they look at this and think it's very easy," said Howard Cheng, their coach and a professor in the mathematics and computer science faculty.
In the contest, teams were given 10 problems and five hours to solve as many of them as they could. Not all problems were quite so easy. One problem had the 49 teams consider an emergency room scenario. Given a certain number of patients with a variety of ills, a certain number of doctors and hospital policy, the students had to devise a computerized triage solution.
"They have to figure out who gets to see which doctor when, and when do they get to leave the hospital," Cheng said.
The U of L team solved eight problems and earned second place. The top finishing team from the University of Calgary also solved eight problems but edged the U of L on speed. Teams are allowed to submit solutions as often as they want but incorrect attempts count against them.
Their hard work earned them a spot in the World Finals from June 30 to July 4, 2013. The contest takes place in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and is hosted by the Saint Petersburg National Research University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics.
"This is the world cup; for us it's the biggest thing," Cheng said.
While the format of the world contest is similar to the Rocky Mountain regional contest, the problems are much more difficult. They will be competing against 115 teams. But before they get there the team will be practising using problems that have been used in the past.
"Mostly it'll just be a lot of hours sweating in front of a computer, metaphorically," Cheng said.
Cheng will be seeking funding from various organizations to cover the cost of travel for the students.