By Roberta Kwok for The New Yorker. In early 2014, Sharif Ibrahim was offered an unusual project. Ibrahim, then a Ph.D. student in mathematics at Washington State University, in Pullman, spent most of his time working on esoteric geometric-analysis problems. Now, his adviser told him, the state of Washington needed help. About a year and a half earlier, voters had approved the legalization of recreational marijuana, and the state was preparing to issue licenses to marijuana retailers. It had capped the number of licenses at three hundred and thirty-four—but the state received more than two thousand applications to open stores. The officials wanted a fair, and random, way of handing out the golden tickets. “The idea is: use a lottery,” Ibrahim, now an engineer at Intel, said in January, in Seattle, during a presentation at the 2016 Joint Mathematics Meetings, the combined annual conference of two major math associations. “How hard could that be?”

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