Science & Math


Nepal’s constitution contains complete instructions for drawing its flag:

(A) Method of Making the Shape Inside the Border

(1) On the lower portion of a crimson cloth draw a line AB of the required length from left to right.
(2) From A draw a line AC perpendicular to AB making AC equal to AB plus one third AB. From AC mark off D making line AD equal to line AB. Join BD.
(3) From BD mark off E making BE equal to AB.
(4) Touching E draw a line FG, starting from the point F on line AC, parallel to AB to the right hand-side. Mark off FG equal to AB.
(5) Join CG.

(B) Method of Making the Moon

(6) From AB mark off AH making AH equal to one-fourth of line AB and starting from H draw a line HI parallel to line AC touching line CG at point I.
(7) Bisect CF at J and draw a line JK parallel to AB touching CG at point K.
(8) Let L be the point where lines JK and HI cut one another.
(9) Join JG.
(10) Let M be the point where line JG and HI cut one another.
(11) With centre M and with a distance shortest from M to BD mark off N on the lower portion of line HI.
(12) Touching M and starting from O, a point on AC, draw a line from left to right parallel to AB.
(13) With centre L and radius LN draw a semi-circle on the lower portion and let P and Q be the points where it touches the line OM respectively.
(14) With centre M and radius MQ draw a semi-circle on the lower portion touching P and Q.
(15) With centre N and radius NM draw an arc touching PNQ [sic] at R and S. Join RS. Let T be the point where RS and HI cut one another.
(16) With Centre T and radius TS draw a semi-circle on the upper portion of PNQ touching it at two points.
(17) With centre T and radius TM draw an arc on the upper portion of PNQ touching at two points.
(18) Eight equal and similar triangles of the moon are to be made in the space lying inside the semi-circle of No. (16) and outside the arc of No. (17) of this Schedule.

(C) Method of Making the Sun

(19) Bisect line AF at U and draw a line UV parallel to line AB touching line BE at V.
(20) With centre W, the point where HI and UV cut one another and radius MN draw a circle.
(21) With centre W and radius LN draw a circle
(22) Twelve equal and similar triangles of the sun are to be made in the space enclosed by the circles of No. (20) and of No. (21) with the two apexes of two triangles touching line HI.

(D) Method of Making the Border

(23) The width of the border will be equal to the width TN. This will be of deep blue colour and will be provided on all the sides of the flag. However, on the five angles of the flag the external angles will be equal to the internal angles.
(24) The above mentioned border will be provided if the flag is to be used with a rope. On the other hand, if it is to be hoisted on a pole, the hole on the border on the side AC can be extended according to requirements.

Explanation: The lines HI, RS, FE, ED, JG, OQ, JK and UV are imaginary. Similarly, the external and internal circles of the sun and the other arcs except the crescent moon are also imaginary. These are not shown on the flag.

That’s a good thing — it’s the only national flag that’s not a quadrilateral. The two pennants represent different branches of a ruling dynasty in the 19th century. The nation signaled its pride in the new design last February by setting a world record for the largest human flag — 35,000 Nepalese gathered in Kathmandu to break Pakistan’s record and to demonstrate their own national unity. I wonder how they worked out the geometry:

Surface Matters

In the 17th century, Italian mathematician Evangelista Torricelli experimented with a figure known as Gabriel’s Horn. Rotate the function y = 1/x about the x-axis for x ≥ 1. The resulting figure has finite volume but infinite surface area — it’s sometimes said that, while the horn could be filled up with π cubic units of paint, an infinite number of square units of paint would be needed to cover its surface.

English cosmologist John D. Barrow describes an infinite wedding cake in which each tier is a solid cylinder 1 unit high; the bottom tier has radius 1, the second radius 1/2, the third radius 1/3, and so on. Now the total volume of the cake is π3/6, but the area of its surface is infinite. Barrow writes, “Our infinite cake recipe requires a finite volume of cake to make but it can never be iced because it has an infinite surface area!”

Mike Steuben, a correspondent of Martin Gardner, imagined a set of boxes, each with area 1 × 1. If the height of the first box is 1, the second 1/2, the third 1/4, and so on, then the total volume of the group is 2 cubic units, but the length and the total area of the tops are infinite.

(Barrow’s example is from 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Math and the Arts, 2014.)

Logic and Belief

A syllogism is a logical argument in which a conclusion is inferred from a set of premises:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The conclusion can be valid without actually stating a true fact; to be valid it just needs to follow logically from the premises. Which of these syllogisms are valid?

No cigarettes are inexpensive.
Some addictive things are inexpensive.
Therefore, some addictive things are not cigarettes.

No addictive things are inexpensive.
Some cigarettes are inexpensive.
Therefore, some cigarettes are not addictive.

In fact both of them are valid. But, interestingly, here the first conclusion seems plausible, while the second does not. That shouldn’t matter, but it does: When Plymouth Polytechnic psychologist J. St. B.T. Evans presented a set of these arguments to subjects in 1983, he found a substantial “belief bias” — the subjects tended to judge the believable conclusions to be valid more than the unbelievable ones. If the conclusion was believable, 92% of the subjects accepted it, regardless of its validity. If the conclusion was unbelievable, 46% accepted it if it was valid, 8% if it was invalid.

Evans wrote, “These findings not only provide a challenge for existing models of syllogistic reasoning but also raise broader questions about people’s rational competence to generate and assess logical arguments in real life, whenever they have clear a priori beliefs about the subject under discussion.”

(J. St. B.T. Evans et al., “On the Conflict Between Logic and Belief in Syllogistic Reasoning,” Memory & Cognition, 11(3), 295-306.)

A New Pangram

British recreational mathematician Lee Sallows has produced many varieties of the self-enumerating pangram — sentences that inventory their own contents:

This pangram contains four As, one B, two Cs, one D, thirty Es, six Fs, five Gs, seven Hs, eleven Is, one J, one K, two Ls, two Ms, eighteen Ns, fifteen Os, two Ps, one Q, five Rs, twenty-seven Ss, eighteen Ts, two Us, seven Vs, eight Ws, two Xs, three Ys, & one Z.

A few years ago he began to wonder whether it’s possible to produce a sentence that reckons its totals as percentages. This is more difficult, because the percentages won’t always work out to be integers. As he worked on the problem he mentioned it to a few others, among them British computer scientist Chris Patuzzo. And a few days ago, Patuzzo sent him this:

This sentence is dedicated to Lee Sallows and to within one decimal place four point five percent of the letters in this sentence are a’s, zero point one percent are b’s, four point three percent are c’s, zero point nine percent are d’s, twenty point one percent are e’s, one point five percent are f’s, zero point four percent are g’s, one point five percent are h’s, six point eight percent are i’s, zero point one percent are j’s, zero point one percent are k’s, one point one percent are l’s, zero point three percent are m’s, twelve point one percent are n’s, eight point one percent are o’s, seven point three percent are p’s, zero point one percent are q’s, nine point nine percent are r’s, five point six percent are s’s, nine point nine percent are t’s, zero point seven percent are u’s, one point four percent are v’s, zero point seven percent are w’s, zero point five percent are x’s, zero point three percent are y’s and one point six percent are z’s.

Details are here. The next challenge is a version where the percentages are accurate to two decimal places — Patuzzo is working on that now.

(Thanks, Lee.)

Prince Rupert’s Drops

Drop a bit of molten glass into a bucket of cold water and you’ll produce a teardrop-shaped bauble with a long tail. Surprisingly, you can pound on the bulbous end with a hammer without breaking it, but snipping the delicate tail causes the whole drop to explode. The water hardens the outer shell before the interior has cooled and contracted, so the finished drop carries high compressive stresses on the surface and tensile stress at the core.

The drops were known in northern Germany as early as 1625 and distributed through Europe as toys, though the underlying principles were not well understood until the 20th century. Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682) did not discover the drops but was the first to bring them to England, where Charles II delivered them to the Royal Society. The anonymous Ballad of Gresham College (1663) immortalizes the experiments that followed:

And that which makes their Fame ring louder,
With much adoe they shew’d the King
To make glasse Buttons turn to powder,
If off the[m] their tayles you doe but wring.
How this was donne by soe small Force
Did cost the Colledg a Month’s discourse.


Two mathematicians were having dinner. One was complaining: ‘The average person is a mathematical idiot. People cannot do arithmetic correctly, cannot balance a checkbook, cannot calculate a tip, cannot do percents, …’ The other mathematician disagreed: ‘You’re exaggerating. People know all the math they need to know.’

Later in the dinner the complainer went to the men’s room. The other mathematician beckoned the waitress to his table and said, ‘The next time you come past our table, I am going to stop you and ask you a question. No matter what I say, I want you to answer by saying “x squared.”‘ She agreed. When the other mathematician returned, his companion said, ‘I’m tired of your complaining. I’m going to stop the next person who passes our table and ask him or her an elementary calculus question, and I bet the person can solve it.’ Soon the waitress came by and he asked: ‘Excuse me, Miss, but can you tell me what the integral of 2x with respect to x is?’ The waitress replied: ‘x squared.’ The mathematician said, ‘See!’ His friend said, ‘Oh … I guess you were right.’ And the waitress said, ‘Plus a constant.’

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998

In a Word

adj. musing, meditating, thoughtful, deep in thought

In his Treatise of the System of the World, Isaac Newton imagines firing cannonballs with greater and greater velocity from a high mountaintop. “The body projected with a less velocity, describes the lesser arc VD, and with a greater velocity, the greater arc VE, and augmenting the velocity, it goes farther and farther to F and G; if the velocity was still more and more augmented, it would reach at last quite beyond the circumference of the Earth, and return to the mountain from which it was projected.”

Indeed, if air resistance is not a factor, the cannonball will return to the mountain with the same velocity with which it left it, “and retaining the same velocity, it will describe the same curve over and over, by the same law,” like the moon. Thus with a simple thought experiment Newton conceived that gravity was the key force underlying planetary motion.

In a fitting tribute, the diagram above is now traveling beyond the solar system on the Voyager Golden Record, on a journey that its author helped to make possible.

A Many-Sided Story


Back in September I posted a geometry problem mentioned by Andy Liu in Math Horizons in November 1997. Several readers recognized it and wrote in with the pretty solution — here it is:

As before, we’re given that ∠DCA = 20°, ∠ACB = 60°, ∠CBD = 50°, and ∠DBA = 30°, and we’re asked to find ∠CAD. Start by extending CD and BA to intersect at O, and draw a circle with O as the center and OB as the radius. Now, because ∠OCB and ∠OBC both measure 80°, BC is one side of an 18-gon inscribed in this circle.

Let E be the fifth vertex of this 18-gon to the left of C and F be the fifth vertex to the right of C. Also let G be the first vertex to the left of C and H be the first vertex to the right of B. Then, by symmetry, EB, GF, and OC meet. And by the central angle theorem ∠EBC is half the measure of ∠EOC, or 50°, so EB, GF, and OC meet at D.

Now, OFH is an equilateral triangle (by symmetry and the fact that ∠FOH is 60°), and ∠GFH is half the measure of ∠GOH, or 30° (again by the central angle theorem). So GF bisects OH.

Finally, by symmetry, AC = AH. But ∠ACD = 20° = ∠AOD, so triangle AOC is equilateral and AC = AO. Then AO = AH, and by symmetry AF bisects OH. And that means that GF passes through A.

Therefore, ∠BAD = ∠OAF, which is half of ∠OAH, or 70°. And from the information given at the start we can infer that ∠CAB = 40°. So ∠CAD = 30°.

I’m told that there are more problems like this in I.F. Sharygin’s 1988 book Problems in Plane Geometry. Thanks to the folks who wrote in about this.

11/06/2015 UPDATE: Another reader pointed out an alternate solution, discovered by Edward Mann Langley in 1922. (Thanks, January.)


In 1726, the Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer mistook the skull and vertebral column of a large salamander from the Miocene epoch for the “betrübten Beingerüst eines alten Sünders” (sad bony remains of an old human sinner) and dubbed it Homo diluvii testis, “the man who witnessed the Deluge.” The fossil lacked a tail or hind legs, so he thought it was the remains of a trampled human child:

It is certain that this [rock] contains the half, or nearly so, of the skeleton of a man; that the substance even of the bones, and, what is more, of the flesh and of parts still softer than the flesh, are there incorporated in the stone; in a word it is one of the rarest relics which we have of that accursed race which was buried under the waters. The figure shows us the contour of the frontal bone, the orbits with the openings which give passage to the great nerves of the fifth pair. We see there the remains of the brain, of the sphenoidal bone, of the roots of the nose, a notable fragment of the maxillary bone, and some vestiges of the liver.

The fossil made its way to Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, where in 1811 Georges Cuvier recognized it as a giant salamander. Ironically, Scheuchzer’s original belief is reflected in the fossil’s modern name, Andrias scheuchzeriAndrias means “image of man.”

Reflected Glory

During a solar eclipse, the splashes of light that appear among the shadows of leaves take on the crescent shape of the sun.

In a pinch you can fashion your hands into a pinhole camera in order to observe an eclipse: Just make a loose fist of one hand and use it to focus the sun’s image onto the palm of your other hand. “The 0.25 cm (0.098 in) aperture f/200 optical system yields a reasonable image of the progress of the eclipse,” writes Peter L. Manly in Unusual Telescopes. “This telescope is easy to use, inexpensive and portable. The tracking system, however, leaves something to be desired.”