Science & Math

Who’s Counting?

In the 14th century, an unnamed Kabbalistic scholar declared that the universe contains 301,655,722 angels.

In 1939, English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington calculated that it contains 15,747,724, 136,275,002,577,605,653,961,181,555,468,044,717,914,527,116,709,366,231,425,076,
185,631,031,296 electrons.

“Some like to understand what they believe in,” wrote Stanislaw Lec. “Others like to believe in what they understand.”

Good Behavior

prisoner magic square

Back in 2010 I posted a prime magic square created by a prison inmate and published anonymously in the Journal of Recreational Mathematics. The same prisoner composed the 7×7 square above, which has some remarkable properties of its own:

  • Here again every cell is prime.
  • The numbers in each row, column, and the two main diagonals add to the magic constant of 27627.
  • That same constant, 27627, is the sum of each broken diagonal (that is, each pair of parallel diagonals that include seven numbers, for example 3881 + 827 + 9257 + 5471 + 1741 + 29 + 6421).
  • If the units digit is removed from each number (changing 9341 to 934, 6367 to 636, etc.), then it remains a pandiagonal magic square, with all the properties mentioned above for the primes.

Both squares appeared in the October 1961 issue of Recreational Mathematics Magazine — editor Joseph S. Madachy noted that they had been “sent to Francis L. Miksa of Aurora, Illinois from an inmate in prison who, obviously, must remain nameless.”

It’s not clear to me why the prisoner shouldn’t get credit for this work, whatever his crime — presumably he created both squares while working alone and without tools or references, a remarkable achievement. If I learn any more I’ll post it here.


Many a man floated in water before Archimedes; apples fell from trees as long ago as the Garden of Eden, and the onrush of steam against resistance could have been noted at any time since the discovery of fire and its use under a covered pot of water. In all these cases it was eons before the significance of these events was perceived. Obviously a chance discovery involves both the phenomenon to be observed and the appropriate, intelligent observer.

— Walter Cannon, The Way of an Investigator, 1945

Brothers in Binary

A number is said to be perfect if it equals the sum of its divisors: 6 is divisible by 1, 2, and 3, and 1 + 2 + 3 = 6.

St. Augustine wrote, “Six is a number perfect in itself, and not because God created all things in six days; rather the converse is true; God created all things in six days because this number is perfect, and it would have been perfect even if the work of the six days did not exist.”

Perfect numbers are rare. No one knows whether an infinite quantity exist, and no one knows whether any of them are odd. The early Greeks knew the first four, and in the ensuing two millennia we’ve uncovered only 44 more. But they have one thing in common — they reveal a curious harmony when expressed in base 2:

brothers in binary


“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” — Mark Twain

“At last I fell fast asleep on the grass & awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me, & squirrels running up the trees & some Woodpeckers laughing, & it was as pleasant a rural scene as ever I saw, & I did not care one penny how any of the beasts or birds had been formed.” — Charles Darwin, letter to his wife, April 28, 1858


Launched in 1976, NASA’s Laser Geodynamic Satellite needed a stable orbit to permit precise measurements of continental drift, so its designers gave it a high trajectory and a heart of solid brass. As a result, it’s not expected to return to Earth for 8 million years. That raised an interesting challenge: What message could we attach to the satellite that might be intelligible to our descendants or successors, who might recover it thousands of millennia in the future?

Tasked with that problem, Carl Sagan came up with the “greeting card” at left, which is affixed to LAGEOS on a small metal plaque. Using it, whoever comes upon the plaque can calculate roughly the time between his own epoch and ours. In Sagan’s words, the card says, “A few hundred million years ago the continents were all together, as in the top drawing. At the time LAGEOS was launched the map of the Earth looks as in the middle drawing. Eight million years from now, when LAGEOS should return to Earth, we figure the continents will appear as in the bottom drawing. Yours truly.”


rectangle theorem

For any rectangle, the sum of the squares of the distances from any point P to two opposite corners is equal to the sum of the squares of the distances from that point to the two other corners (so, above, a2 + c2 = b2 + d2). This remains true whether the point is inside or outside the rectangle, on a side or a corner, or even outside the plane.

Pushkin wrote, “Inspiration is needed in geometry, just as much as in poetry.”

Math Notes

10989 × 9 = 98901 × 1
21978 × 8 = 87912 × 2
32967 × 7 = 76923 × 3
43956 × 6 = 65934 × 4
54945 × 5 = 54945 × 5

Correlation, Causation

mould storks

From Richard F. Mould’s Introductory Medical Statistics — this graph plots the population of Oldenburg, Germany, at the end of each year 1930-1936 against the number of storks observed in that year.

Does this explain the storks’ presence? Not necessarily: In 1888 J.J. Sprenger noted, “In Oldenburg there is a curious theory that the autumnal gatherings of the storks are in reality Freemasons’ meetings.”

Digit Work

A useful system of finger reckoning from the Middle Ages:

To multiply 6 x 9, hold up one finger, to represent the difference between the 5 fingers on that hand and the first number to be multiplied, 6.

On the other hand, hold up four fingers, the difference between 5 and 9.

Now add the number of extended fingers on each hand to get the first digit of the answer (1 + 4 = 5), and multiply the number of closed fingers on each hand to get the second (4 × 1 = 4). This gives the answer, 54.

In this way one can multiply numbers between 6 and 9 while knowing the multiplication table only up to 5 × 5.

A similar system could be used to multiply numbers between 10 and 15. To multiply 14 by 12, extend 4 fingers on one hand and 2 on the other. Add them to get 6; add 10 times that sum to 100, giving 160; and then add the product of the extended fingers, 4 × 2, to get 168.

This system reflects the fact that xy = 10 [(x – 10) + (y – 10)] + 100 + (x – 10)(y – 10).

(From J.T. Rogers, The Story of Mathematics, 1968.)