Elvis at the Beach

ElvisHolland, Mich. — The most famous dog in Holland., Mich. — I think I’m safe saying that — is a Welsh Corgi named Elvis who spends a lot of time in Hope College’s math department, alternately attending classes and keeping watch on the hallway outside Timothy J. Pennings‘s office. Elvis is famous because he can do calculus.

In fact, Mr. Pennings said when I stopped by, “Elvis and I give a little talk called ‘Do Dogs Know Calculus?’” The talk grows out of an experiment Mr. Pennings and Elvis try regularly when they go to the beach. Mr. Pennings throws a stick into the water some distance ahead of where they’re walking. But instead of jumping into the water right where they are and swimming out to the stick, Elvis runs a ways along the beach—he runs much faster than he swims—and then plunges into the water to swim to the stick. “He goes in within about a foot of the optimal point every time,” Mr. Pennings said.

The optimal point, in this case, isn’t the one that would make for the shortest swim, but the point at which Elvis’s combined running-and-swimming time is shortest—meaning Elvis has solved a calculus problem. You can see where such skill would be useful for herding cattle and sheep, which is what Corgis were bred for.

Tim Pennings and ElvisElvis’s mathematical genius has gained him television appearances and visits to mathematical conferences, but fame doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. He lay quietly on the floor while Mr. Pennings met with freshman advisees and then as the professor told me about his research into how sand dunes form, as well as about the non-math courses he enjoys teaching. In one called “Forging a Different Path,” first-year students read works of Malcolm X and Bertrand Russell, along with Jonathan Livingston Seagull; in a senior seminar called “Pondering the Big Questions,” students take on issues like “Why is there evil in the world?” (Elvis mostly sits that one out.)

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