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The $1,000 Doug MacDonald Challenge

Caption below photo
Doug MacDonald dumps all his rice into the funnel on the left. Katherine Boyd slowly pours her rice into the funnel on the right, while Ted Trepanier looks on. View larger image.

Caption below photo
The rice passes through the right funnel much faster. View larger image.
In September 2006, Secretary Doug MacDonald announced the $1,000 Doug MacDonald Challenge, sponsored by the national Transportation Research Board, an organization with the National Academy of Sciences.

In his challenge, carried by the Seattle Times, Secretary MacDonald said he would give $1000 of his own money to the person who could best communicate to the public the concept of through-put maximization. It means moving the maximum number of cars through a stretch of highway at the maximum speed.

After reviewing 90 serious contenders, MacDonald selected Paul Haase, a Sammamish science writer with a thing for funnels, as the winner. 

The Paul Haase solution

Here’s what you need:

  • Two funnels
  • Two liter-sized containers to place
    under the funnels
  • One liter of rice
  • One stop watch

Haase dumped one liter of rice all at once into the funnel and started the timer. Forty seconds (and several rice-sized traffic jams) later, all the rice was in the receiving container. Then, he took the same liter of rice, the same funnel and the same stop watch, but this time he poured the rice slowly and evenly into the funnel. Can you guess what happened? Twenty-seven seconds later, all the rice was in the receiving container. He shaved 13 seconds off his old time through gradual, controlled pouring.

What does this prove? According to Secretary MacDonald, it proves systems like ramp meters, which regulate traffic, save drivers time. It also proves future systems, like high occupancy toll lanes and transponders that speed drivers through toll lanes, will make the most of our limited lanes.