Science & Math


  • Denver International Airport is larger than Manhattan.
  • C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy died on the same day.
  • Shakespeare mentions America only once, in Act 3, Scene 2 of The Comedy of Errors.
  • π4 + π5e6
  • “All styles are good except the boring kind.” — Voltaire

(Thanks, Larry.)


What’s unusual about this magic square?

heath invertible square 1

It works just as well upside down:

heath invertible square 2

From Royal V. Heath, Scripta Mathematica, March-June 1951. See Topsy Turvy.

Small Business

To help interest young students in chemistry, James Tour of Rice University devised “NanoPutians,” organic molecules that take the form of stick figures. The body is a series of carbon atoms that join two benzene rings; the arms and legs are acetylene units, each terminating in an alkyl group; and the head is a 1,3-dioxolane ring.

This gets even better — by using microwave irradiation, Tour found a way to vary the heads, creating a range of NanoProfessionals:

The synthesis is detailed on the Wikipedia page.

Lights Out

I pass on to Eclipses. When the Moon (see above) gets between the Earth (see below) and the Sun (do what you like), the resulting phenomenon is called an Eclipse of the Sun. When the Sun gets between the Earth and the Moon there will be the devil to pay. It will be called the Eclipse of the Earth and is likely to be total.

— H.F. Ellis, So This Is Science!, 1932

Equal Opportunity

Can two dice be weighted so that the probability of each of the numbers 2, 3, …, 12 is the same?

Click for Answer

Cause for Alarm

Sherlock Holmes is walking through the valley of Reichenbach Fall. On a clifftop overhead, Moriarty has perched a boulder. When he pushes it, it will have a 90 percent chance of killing Holmes. Just as he is about to send it over the edge, Watson arrives at the clifftop. Watson can’t see Holmes, so he’s not able to push the boulder safely clear, but he reasons that it’s better to push the boulder in a random direction than to let Moriarty aim it carefully. So he pushes the boulder off the cliff in such a way that Holmes’ chance of dying is reduced to 10 percent.

Unfortunately the boulder crushes Holmes anyway. Watson’s push decreased the chance of Holmes’ death, but it also caused it.

What are we to make of this? Generally speaking, it seems true to say that Pre-emptive pushing prevents death by crushing. That is, Watson’s push was of the sort that made it less likely that Holmes would die — if the scenario were re-enacted many times, with the boulder pushed sometimes by Watson, sometimes by Moriarty, Watson-type pushes would result in fewer deaths. But it also seems true to say that Watson’s pushing the rock caused Holmes to die. But cause and prevent are antonyms. How can both of these statements be true?

(Christopher Read Hitchcock, “The Mishap at Reichenbach Fall: Singular vs. General Causation,” Philosophical Studies, June 1995.)

Half and Half

A bisecting arc is one that bisects the area of a given region. “What is the shortest bisecting arc of a circle?” Murray Klamkin asked D.J. Newman. Newman supposed that it was a diameter. “What is the shortest bisecting arc of a square?” Newman answered that it was an altitude through the center. Finally Klamkin asked, “And what is the shortest bisecting arc of an equilateral triangle?”

“By this time, Newman had suspected that I was setting him up (and I was) and almost was going to say the angle bisector,” Klamkin writes. “But he hesitated and said let me consider a chord parallel to the base and since this turns out to be shorter than an angle bisector, he gave this as his answer.”

Was he right?

Click for Answer

Proizvolov’s Identity

List the first 2N positive integers (here let N = 4):

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Divide them arbitrarily into two groups of N numbers:

1, 4, 6, 7

2, 3, 5, 8

Arrange one group in ascending order, the other in descending order:

1, 4, 6, 7

8, 5, 3, 2

Now the sum of the absolute differences of these pairs will always equal N2:

| 1 – 8 | + | 4 – 5 | + | 6 – 3 | + | 7 – 2 | = 16 = N2

(Presented by Vyacheslav Proizvolov as a problem in the 1985 All-Union Soviet Student Olympiads.)

Self-Replicating Resistors

From Lee Sallows:

self-replicating resistors

In an electrical network, if resistors x and y are placed in series their total resistance is x + y; if they’re placed in parallel it’s 1/(1/x + 1/y).

This offers an intriguing opportunity for self-reference. Each of the networks above contains four resistors with values 1, 2, 3, and 4, and the total resistances of the networks themselves are 1, 2, 3, and 4. So any one of the numbered resistors in these networks can be replaced by one of the networks themselves.

The challenge was posed by Sallows and Stan Wagon as a Macalester College “problem of the week”; these examples were discovered by Brian Trial, an automotive electronics engineer from Ferndale, Mich. Sallows points out that any such solution has a dual that results from changing series connections to parallel, and vice versa, and then replacing all resistors values by their reciprocals.

This leads to a further idea: The two sets of resistors below are “co-replicating” — the four networks on the left can be used to replace the four resistors in any of the networks on the right, and vice versa.

co-replicating resistors

(Thanks, Lee.)

The Simson Line

Draw any triangle ABC and pick any point P on its circumcircle.

The closest points to P on lines AB, BC, and AC will be collinear.

Stage Business

The goal of the Shakespeare programming language is to create code that reads like a Shakespearean play: Variables are “characters” that interact through dialogue, constants are represented by nouns and adjectives, and if/then statements are phrased as questions. (Insulting Macbeth assigns him a negative value.) Act and scene numbers serve as GOTO labels, and characters can tell one another to “remember” or “recall” values. The phrases “Open your heart” and “Speak your mind” output a variable’s numerical value and the corresponding ASCII character, respectively.

This program prints the phrase HELLO WORLD:

Romeo, a young man with a remarkable patience.
Juliet, a likewise young woman of remarkable grace.
Ophelia, a remarkable woman much in dispute with Hamlet.
Hamlet, the flatterer of Andersen Insulting A/S.

                   Act I: Hamlet's insults and flattery.
                   Scene I: The insulting of Romeo.
[Enter Hamlet and Romeo]
You lying stupid fatherless big smelly half-witted coward! You are as
stupid as the difference between a handsome rich brave hero and thyself!
Speak your mind!
You are as brave as the sum of your fat little stuffed misused dusty
old rotten codpiece and a beautiful fair warm peaceful sunny summer's
day. You are as healthy as the difference between the sum of the
sweetest reddest rose and my father and yourself! Speak your mind!
You are as cowardly as the sum of yourself and the difference
between a big mighty proud kingdom and a horse. Speak your mind.
Speak your mind!
[Exit Romeo]
                   Scene II: The praising of Juliet.
[Enter Juliet]
Thou art as sweet as the sum of the sum of Romeo and his horse and his
black cat! Speak thy mind!
[Exit Juliet]
                   Scene III: The praising of Ophelia.
[Enter Ophelia]
Thou art as lovely as the product of a large rural town and my amazing
bottomless embroidered purse. Speak thy mind!
Thou art as loving as the product of the bluest clearest sweetest sky
and the sum of a squirrel and a white horse. Thou art as beautiful as
the difference between Juliet and thyself. Speak thy mind!
[Exeunt Ophelia and Hamlet]

                   Act II: Behind Hamlet's back.
                   Scene I: Romeo and Juliet's conversation.
[Enter Romeo and Juliet]
Speak your mind. You are as worried as the sum of yourself and the
difference between my small smooth hamster and my nose. Speak your
Speak YOUR mind! You are as bad as Hamlet! You are as small as the
difference between the square of the difference between my little pony
and your big hairy hound and the cube of your sorry little
codpiece. Speak your mind!
[Exit Romeo]
                   Scene II: Juliet and Ophelia's conversation.
[Enter Ophelia]
Thou art as good as the quotient between Romeo and the sum of a small
furry animal and a leech. Speak your mind!
Thou art as disgusting as the quotient between Romeo and twice the
difference between a mistletoe and an oozing infected blister! Speak
your mind!

Because it’s written as a play, a program can be performed by human actors, but the drama lacks a certain narrative drive:

See Output.


From Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics in the Making, an appealingly memorizable table of basic trigonometric values:

hogben table

See Alison’s Triangle.

(Thanks, Tom.)

Sociable Numbers

The sum of the proper divisors of 14316 is 19116.
The sum of the proper divisors of 19116 is 31704.
The sum of the proper divisors of 31704 is 47616.
The sum of the proper divisors of 47616 is 83328.
The sum of the proper divisors of 83328 is 177792.
The sum of the proper divisors of 177792 is 295488.
The sum of the proper divisors of 295488 is 629072.
The sum of the proper divisors of 629072 is 589786.
The sum of the proper divisors of 589786 is 294896.
The sum of the proper divisors of 294896 is 358336.
The sum of the proper divisors of 358336 is 418904.
The sum of the proper divisors of 418904 is 366556.
The sum of the proper divisors of 366556 is 274924.
The sum of the proper divisors of 274924 is 275444.
The sum of the proper divisors of 275444 is 243760.
The sum of the proper divisors of 243760 is 376736.
The sum of the proper divisors of 376736 is 381028.
The sum of the proper divisors of 381028 is 285778.
The sum of the proper divisors of 285778 is 152990.
The sum of the proper divisors of 152990 is 122410.
The sum of the proper divisors of 122410 is 97946.
The sum of the proper divisors of 97946 is 48976.
The sum of the proper divisors of 48976 is 45946.
The sum of the proper divisors of 45946 is 22976.
The sum of the proper divisors of 22976 is 22744.
The sum of the proper divisors of 22744 is 19916.
The sum of the proper divisors of 19916 is 17716.
The sum of the proper divisors of 17716 is 14316 again.

Rich Earth

Why do the elements ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, and erbium have similar names?

Because all four of them were first discovered in ore from the same mine near the Swedish village of Ytterby.

Holmium, thulium, and gadolinium were discovered at the same source — leading some to call Ytterby the Galápagos of the periodic table.

Math Notes

12 + 22 + 32 + 42 – (52 + 62 + 72 + 82 + 92 + 102 + 112 + 122) + 132 + 142 + 152 = 0


Create a strip of 19 triangles like the one above (printable version here) and fold the left portion back successively at each of the northeast-pointing lines to produce a spiral:

Fold this spiral backward along line ab:

Then fold the resulting figure backward at cd. You should be left with one blank triangular tab that can be folded backward and pasted to another blank panel on the opposite side. The resulting hexagon should have six 1s on one side and six 2s on the other.

With some adroit pinching this hexagon produces some marvelous effects. Fold down two adjacent triangles so that they meet, and then press in the opposite corner to join them. Now the top of the figure can be prised open and folded down to produce a new hexagon — this one with 1s on one face and a surprising blank on the second. What has become of the 2s?

Exploring the properties of this “hexahexaflexagon” offers an intuitive lesson in geometric group theory:

When Martin Gardner wrote about these bemusing creatures in his first column for Scientific American in 1956, he received two letters. The first was from Neil Uptegrove of Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories in Clifton, N.J.:


I was quite taken with the article entitled ‘Flexagons’ in your December issue. It took us only six or seven hours to paste the hexahexaflexagon together in the proper configuration. Since then it has been a source of continuing wonder.

But we have a problem. This morning one of our fellows was sitting flexing the hexahexaflexagon idly when the tip of his necktie became caught in one of the folds. With each successive flex, more of his tie vanished into the flexagon. With the sixth flexing he disappeared entirely.

We have been flexing the thing madly, and can find no trace of him, but we have located a sixteenth configuration of the hexahexaflexagon.

Here is our question: Does his widow draw workmen’s compensation for the duration of his absence, or can we have him declared legally dead immediately? We await your advice.

The second was from Robert M. Hill of The Royal College of Science and Technology in Glasgow, Scotland:


The letter in the March issue of your magazine complaining of the disappearance of a fellow from the Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories ‘down’ a hexahexaflexagon, has solved a mystery for us.

One day, while idly flexing our latest hexahexaflexagon, we were confounded to find that it was producing a strip of multicolored material. Further flexing of the hexahexaflexagon finally disgorged a gum-chewing stranger.

Unfortunately he was in a weak state and, owing to an apparent loss of memory, unable to give any account of how he came to be with us. His health has now been restored on our national diet of porridge, haggis and whisky, and he has become quite a pet around the department, answering to the name of Eccles.

Our problem is, should we now return him and, if so, by what method? Unfortunately Eccles now cringes at the very sight of a hexahexaflexagon and absolutely refuses to ‘flex.’

Saving Face

“The Joker,” a picture-preserving geomagic square by Lee Sallows. The 16 pieces can be assembled in varying groups of 4 to produce the same picture in 16 different ways, without rotation or reflection.

The outline need not be a joker — it can take almost any shape.


After seeing a manuscript of On the Origin of Species in April 1859, the Rev. Whitwell Elwin suggested that Darwin write about pigeons instead.

“This appears to me an admirable suggestion,” he wrote. “Everybody is interested in pigeons.”

Magic Variations

frolov pentagon

From Edward Falkener’s Games Ancient and Oriental and How to Play Them (1892), a magic pentagon. “It will be observed that the five sides of each pentagon are all equal, and that the five diameters, from one angle to the centre of the opposite side, are each 459, which is nine times the central number 51, which is also the mean number, the series being 1-101. And, further, that the inner pentagon is 510, or 10 times the mean number; the next pentagon 1,020, or 20 times the mean; the next 1,530, or 30 times the mean; and the outside pentagon 2,040, or 40 times the mean.” Evidently this was devised by Mikhail Frolov for Les carrés magiques (1886).

From the Gentleman’s Magazine, October 1768, a “magic circle of circles” by Benjamin Franklin:

The numbers run from 12 to 75. Each ring and each radius, added to the central number 12, gives 360, the number of degrees in a circle. The dashed lines define four additional sets of circles, with centers at A, B, C, and D, each with five rings; each ring, when added to 12, also gives the total 360. (The 12 is added arbitrarily to bring the total to 360; remove it and the whole arrangement remains magic.)

From the inimitable R.V. Heath:

heath cube

This 8×8 magic square can be cut into four smaller magic squares. When these four are stacked in the order indicated they produce a pandiagonal magic cube, each of whose rows, columns, and diagonals produces the total 130. Also: “The original eighth-order magic square has the additional property that if either set of alternate rows and either set of alternate columns be deleted — and this can be done in four ways — the remaining 16 numbers form a fourth-order magic square of magic constant 130.” (From Howard Whitley Eves, Mathematical Circles Squared, 1972.)

(Thanks, Ray.)

Still LifeÉcorché_cavalier_Fragonard_Alfort_1_edit1.jpg

French anatomist Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799) blurred the line between science and art by arranging human and animal bodies in fanciful poses. By replacing the eyeballs with glass replicas and injecting a distorting resin into the facial blood vessels, he achieved some remarkably expressive effects — his Fetus Dancing the Jig is best left to the imagination.

Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History preserves a collection of wax models that were used in teaching medicine in the 18th century (below). Modelers might refer to 200 corpses in preparing a single wax figure. “If we succeeded in reproducing in wax all the marvels of our animal machine,” wrote director Felice Fontana, “we would no longer need to conduct dissections, and students, physicians, surgeons and artists would be able to find their desired models in a permanent, odor-free and incorruptible state.” Goethe praised artificial anatomy as “a worthy surrogate that, ideally, substitutes reality by giving it a hand.”

(From Roberta Panzanelli, ed., Ephemeral Bodies, 2008.)

Descartes’ Theorem

If three circles “kiss,” like the black circles above, then a fourth circle can be drawn that’s tangent to all three. In 1643 René Descartes showed that if the curvature or “bend” of a circle is defined as k = 1/r, then the radius of the fourth circle can be found by

descartes' theorem

The ± sign reflects the fact that two solutions are generally possible — the plus sign corresponds to the smaller red circle, the minus sign to the larger (circumscribing) one.

Frederick Soddy summed this up in a poem in Nature (June 20, 1936):

The Kiss Precise

For pairs of lips to kiss maybe
Involves no trigonometry.
‘Tis not so when four circles kiss
Each one the other three.
To bring this off the four must be
As three in one or one in three.
If one in three, beyond a doubt
Each gets three kisses from without.
If three in one, then is that one
Thrice kissed internally.

Four circles to the kissing come.
The smaller are the benter.
The bend is just the inverse of
The distance from the center.
Though their intrigue left Euclid dumb
There’s now no need for rule of thumb.
Since zero bend’s a dead straight line
And concave bends have minus sign,
The sum of the squares of all four bends
Is half the square of their sum.

To spy out spherical affairs
An oscular surveyor
Might find the task laborious,
The sphere is much the gayer,
And now besides the pair of pairs
A fifth sphere in the kissing shares.
Yet, signs and zero as before,
For each to kiss the other four
The square of the sum of all five bends
Is thrice the sum of their squares.

(Thanks, Sean.)

The Air Loom

In January 1797 London tea broker James Tilly Matthews was committed to the Bethlem psychiatric hospital after increasingly erratic outbursts in which he claimed he was being persecuted by political enemies. In 1809 Matthews’ friends petitioned for his release, arguing that he was no longer insane, and Bethlem apothecary John Haslam published a book-length study showing how bad his case had become.

Matthews believed that a gang of spies were occupying a Roman wall near the asylum and torturing him with a device called an air loom. The loom was operated by “the Middle Man,” while “Sir Archy” and the “Glove Woman” focused its rays on Matthews and “Jack the Schoolmaster” recorded their effects. Similar gangs, Matthews said, were operating looms all over London to influence the thinking of the nation’s leaders. The tortures included “fluid locking,” “cutting soul from sense,” “stone making,” “thigh talking,” and “lobster-cracking,” which Matthews also described as “sudden death-squeezing”:

In short, I do not know any better way for a person to comprehend the general nature of such lobster-cracking operation, than by supposing himself in a sufficiently large pair of nut-crackers or lobster-crackers, with teeth which should pierce as well as press him through every particle within and without; he experiencing the whole stress, torture, driving, oppressing, and crush all together.

Matthews remained an asylum inpatient until his death in 1815. His is now considered to be the first documented case of paranoid schizophrenia.


The programming language Chef, devised by David Morgan-Mar, is designed to make programs look like cooking recipes. Variables are represented by “ingredients,” input comes from the “refrigerator,” output is sent to “baking dishes,” and so on. The language’s design principles state that “program recipes should not only generate valid output, but be easy to prepare and delicious,” but many of them fall short of that goal — one program for soufflé correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, but the recipe requires 32 zucchinis, 101 eggs, and 111 cups of oil to be combined in a bowl and served to a single person. Mike Worth set out to write a working program that could also be read as an actual recipe. Here’s what he came up with:

Hello World Cake with Chocolate sauce.

This prints hello world, while being tastier than Hello World Souffle. The main
chef makes a " world!" cake, which he puts in the baking dish. When he gets the
sous chef to make the "Hello" chocolate sauce, it gets put into the baking dish
and then the whole thing is printed when he refrigerates the sauce. When
actually cooking, I'm interpreting the chocolate sauce baking dish to be
separate from the cake one and Liquify to mean either melt or blend depending on

33 g chocolate chips
100 g butter
54 ml double cream
2 pinches baking powder
114 g sugar
111 ml beaten eggs
119 g flour
32 g cocoa powder
0 g cake mixture

Cooking time: 25 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Put chocolate chips into the mixing bowl.
Put butter into the mixing bowl.
Put sugar into the mixing bowl.
Put beaten eggs into the mixing bowl.
Put flour into the mixing bowl.
Put baking powder into the mixing bowl.
Put cocoa  powder into the mixing bowl.
Stir the mixing bowl for 1 minute.
Combine double cream into the mixing bowl.
Stir the mixing bowl for 4 minutes.
Liquify the contents of the mixing bowl.
Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish.
bake the cake mixture.
Wait until baked.
Serve with chocolate sauce.

chocolate sauce.

111 g sugar
108 ml hot water
108 ml heated double cream
101 g dark chocolate
72 g milk chocolate

Clean the mixing bowl.
Put sugar into the mixing bowl.
Put hot water into the mixing bowl.
Put heated double cream into the mixing bowl.
dissolve the sugar.
agitate the sugar until dissolved.
Liquify the dark chocolate.
Put dark chocolate into the mixing bowl.
Liquify the milk chocolate.
Put milk chocolate into the mixing bowl.
Liquify contents of the mixing bowl.
Pour contents of the mixing bowl into the baking dish.
Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Worth confirmed that this correctly prints the words “Hello world!”, and then he used the same instructions to bake a real cake. “It was surprisingly well received,” he writes. “The cake was slightly dry (although nowhere near as dry as cheap supermarket cakes), but this was complimented well by the sauce. My brother even asked me for the recipe!”

While we’re at it: Fibonacci Numbers With Caramel Sauce.

Sweet Story

In 1987, paleontologist Tom Rich was leading a dig at Dinosaur Cove southwest of Melbourne when student Helen Wilson asked him what reward she’d get if she found a dinosaur jaw. He said he’d give her a kilo (2.2 pounds) of chocolate. She did, and he did.

Encouraged, the students asked Rich what they’d get if they found a mammal bone. These are fairly rare among dinosaur fossils in Australia, so Rich rashly promised a cubic meter of chocolate — 35 cubic feet, or about a ton.

The cove was “dug out” by 1994, and paleontologists shut down the dig. Rich sent a curious unclassified bone, perhaps a turtle humerus, to two colleagues, who recognized it as belonging to an early echidna, or spiny anteater — a mammal.

Rich now owed the students $10,000 worth of chocolate. “It turns out that it is technically impossible to make a cubic meter of chocolate, because the center would never solidify,” he told National Geographic in 2005. So he arranged for a local Cadbury factory to make a cubic meter of cocoa butter, and then turned the students loose in a room full of chocolate bars.

“It was a bit like Willy Wonka,” Wilson said. “There were chocolate bars on the counters, the tables. We carried out boxes and boxes of chocolate.”

Fittingly, the new echidna was named Kryoryctes cadburyi.