Science & Math

All Right Then

W.H. Auden won first prize for mathematics at St. Edmund’s School in Hindhead, Surrey, when he was 13. He recalled being asked to learn the following mnemonic around 1919:

Minus times Minus equals Plus;
The reason for this we need not discuss.

Math Notes

1 + 2 = 3
1×2 + 2×3 + 3×4 = 4×5
1×2×3 + 2×3×4 + 3×4×5 + 4×5×6 = 5×6×7
1×2×3×4 + 2×3×4×5 + 3×4×5×6 + 4×5×6×7 + 5×6×7×8 = 6×7×8×9

In general, the sum of the first (n+1) products of consecutive n-tuples of consecutive integers is equal to the product of the next n-tuple.

(Thanks, Peter.)

Montmort’s Theorem

Suppose n students are sitting at n desks in a classroom. They’re asked to stand, mill around at random, and then sit again. What is the probability that at least one student will find herself in her original seat?

Intuition says that the probability ought to drop as the number of students increases, but in fact it remains about the same:

montmort table

In fact, Pierre Rémond de Montmort showed in 1708 that it’s

montmort theorem

… which approaches 1 – 1/e, or about 0.63212. Whether there are 10 students or 10,000, the chance that at least one student returns to her own seat is about 2/3.

Coming to Terms

Antoni Zygmund once asked if the World Series shouldn’t be called the World Sequence? And shouldn’t a combination lock be called a permutation lock? John Von Neumann once had a dog called Inverse. It would sit when told to stand and go when it was told to come. Von Neumann pronounced the term infinite series as infinite serious.

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998


Starting in the 1970s, neurobiologist Otto-Joachim Grüsser spent 10 years collating the light sources in 2,124 paintings selected at random from Western art originating between the 14th and 20th centuries. He found that in most paintings considered Western works of art, especially those painted around the time of the Scientific Revolution, the light falls from the left.

“At the beginning of modern Western art during the early Gothic period, a preference for diffuse illumination or light sources distributed around the painted scene was found,” Grüsser noted. “In a minority of paintings from the fourteenth century that show a clear light direction, a bias to the left side is present. This left-sided preference increased at the expense of diffuse or middle light sources up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and declined thereafter. In the twentieth century, the diffuse or middle type of light distribution again became dominant.”

It’s not clear what to make of this. It seems reasonable that a right-handed artist might favor light falling from the left, but why should this vary with time? Grüsser found that the left-handed Leonardo da Vinci applied light sources from varying angles, and Hans Holbein the Younger, also a dominant left-hander, favored light falling from the right.

“From such observations in the works of these two left-handed painters who painted, drew, and wrote with the left hand, one gains the impression that the distribution of left, middle, and right light direction in left-handed painters deviates significantly from the average distribution of light found in the paintings of other contemporary painters. It would be interesting to study the drawings and paintings of other confirmed left-handed artists, who worked exclusively with the left hand.”

(Otto-Joachim Grüsser, Thomas Selke, and Barbara Zynda, “Cerebral Lateralization and Some Implications for Art, Aesthetic Perception, and Artistic Creativity,” in Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger, and David Epstein, Beauty and the Brain, 1988.)

Hot and Cold

Suppose you have three identical Dewar flasks labeled A, B, and C. (A Thermos is a Dewar flask.) You also have an empty container labeled D, which has thermally perfect conducting walls and which fits inside a Dewar flask.

Pour 1 liter of 80°C water into flask A and 1 liter of 20°C water into flask B. Now, using all four containers, is it possible to use the hot water to heat the cold water so that the final temperature of the cold water is higher than the final temperature of the hot water? How? (You can’t actually mix the hot water with the cold.)

Click for Answer

A Dice Puzzle

Timothy and Urban are playing a game with two six-sided dice. The dice are unusual: Rather than bearing a number, each face is painted either red or blue.

The two take turns throwing the dice. Timothy wins if the two top faces are the same color, and Urban wins if they’re different. Their chances of winning are equal.

The first die has 5 red faces and 1 blue face. What are the colors on the second die?

Click for Answer


Discovered by R.V. Heath in 1950:

Think of two positive integers.

Add them to get a third number.

Add the second number and the third number to get a fourth number.

Continue in this way until you have 10 numbers.

The sum of the 10 numbers is 11 times the seventh number.

Return to Sender

Mathematician Yutaka Nishiyama of the Osaka University of Economics has designed a nifty paper boomerang that you can use indoors. A free PDF template (with instructions in 70 languages!) is here.

Hold it vertically, like a paper airplane, and throw it straight ahead at eye level, snapping your wrist as you release it. The greater the spin, the better the performance. It should travel 3-4 meters in a circle and return in 1-2 seconds. Catch it between your palms.

The Modern Prometheus

jacobson railroad

By 1958 many of the attributes of living things could be found in our technology: locomotion (cars), metabolism (steam engines), energy storage (batteries), perception of stimuli (iconoscopes), and nervous or cerebral activity (computers). The missing element was reproduction: We hadn’t yet created a nonliving artifact that could make copies of itself.

So Brooklyn College chemistry professor Homer Jacobson built one. Using an HO gauge model railroad, he designed an “organism” made of boxcars that could use sensors to select other cars on the track and assemble them on a siding into models of itself. “Head” cars have “brains,” and “tail” cars have “muscles” and “eyes”; together, a head and a tail make an organism in which the head directs the tail to watch for available cars elsewhere on the track and shunt them appropriately onto a siding to create a new organism.

“Any new ‘organisms’ formed continue the propagation in a linear fashion,” Jacobson wrote, “until the environment runs out of parts, or there are no more sidings available, or a mistake is made somewhere in the operation of a cycle, i.e., a ‘mutation.’ Such an effect, like that with living beings, is usually fatal.”

(Homer Jacobson, “On Models of Reproduction,” American Scientist, September 1958.)

The Vacuum Airship

A conventional balloon rises because its airbag displaces a large volume of air. But the gas that fills the bag has some weight; it, along with the weight of the gondola, reduces the balloon’s total lift.

Realizing this, Italian monk Francesco Lana de Terzi in 1670 proposed a “vacuum airship,” a balloon whose airbag was filled with nothing at all. Since a vacuum weighs nothing, this should maximize the vehicle’s lift — the vacuum could displace a large volume of air without itself adding any weight.

In principle this might work; the problem is that the vacuum would tend to collapse its container, and building a shell sturdy enough to withstand it would leave us with a ship too heavy to lift. It’s not clear whether any material or structure could overcome this problem.

Stamps and Math

Lee Sallows tells me that the postal system of Macau is releasing a new series of stamps based on magic squares. The full set will touch on everything from the Roman SATOR square to Dürer’s Melencolia. Details are here.

Charmingly, the values of the stamps will be 1, 2, …, 9 Macau patacas, so that the sheet of the nine stamps will itself form a classic Lo Shu magic square. Lee’s contribution, above, is a Nasik 2D geomagic square of order 3 — not only are all the rows and columns magic, but so are all six diagonals, including the four “broken” diagonals.

Somewhat related: In 2000 Finland issued seven stamps in classic tangram shapes, featuring images of science and education. (One of the small triangles, barely visible here, is a Sierpinski gasket.) Only three of the seven shapes are denominated postage, but I should think the temptation is overwhelming to arrange all seven on an envelope in the shape of a little man or a fish or something. I wonder what the post office makes of that.

Stretch Goals

stretch goals puzzle

Two circles intersect. A line AC is drawn through one of the intersection points, B. AC can pivot around point B — what position will maximize its length?

Click for Answer

Cancel That

Howard C. Saar of Albion, Mich., pointed out an innovative solution to this problem in Recreational Mathematics Magazine, April 1962:

log(3x + 2) + log(4x – 1) = 2log11

Divide each side of the equation by the word “log”:

(3x + 2) + (4x – 1) = (2)(11)

7x = 21

x = 3

… which is correct.

Catch as Catch Can

Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, took an active interest in juggling. He used to juggle balls while riding a unicycle through the halls of Bell Laboratories, and he built the first juggling robot from an Erector set in the 1970s. (The machine above mimics W.C. Fields, who himself juggled in vaudeville before turning to comedy.)

Noting that juggling seems to appeal to mathematics-minded people, Shannon offered the following theorem:

claude shannon juggling theorem

F is flight time, the time the ball spends in the air
D is “dwell time,” the time it spends in the hand
V is vacancy, the time a hand spends empty
B is the number of balls
H is the number of hands

“Theorem 1 allows one to calculate the range of possible periods (time between hand throws) for a given type of uniform juggle and a given time of flight,” he wrote. “A juggler can change this period, while keeping the height of his throws fixed, by increasing dwell time (to increase the period) or reducing dwell time to reduce the period. The total mathematical range available for a given flight time can be obtained by setting D = 0 for minimum range and V = 0 for maximum range in Theorem 1. The ratio of these two extremes is independent of the flight time and dependent only on the number of balls and hands.”

To measure dwell times, Shannon actually created a “jugglometer” in which a juggler wore copper mesh over his fingers and juggled foil-covered lacrosse balls; catching the ball closed a connection between the fingers and started a clock. “Preliminary results from testing a few jugglers indicate that, with ball juggling, vacant time is normally less than dwell time, V ranging in our measurements from fifty to seventy per cent of D.”

Shannon noted that juggling gets dramatically harder as the number of balls increases. He worked out a foolproof solution, at least in theory. A light ray that starts at one focus of an ellipse will be reflected to the other focus. If the ellipse is rotated around its major axis, it will create an egglike shell with two foci. Now if a juggler stands with a hand at each focus, then a ball thrown from either hand, in any direction, will bounce off the shell and arrive at the other hand!

(“Scientific Aspects of Juggling,” in Claude Elwood Shannon: Collected Papers, 1993.)

Behind Schedule

In 1980 Philip K. Dick was asked to forecast some significant events in the coming years. Among his predictions:

1983: The Soviet Union will develop an operational particle-beam accelerator, making missile attack against that country impossible. At the same time the U.S.S.R. will deploy this weapon as a satellite killer. The U.S. will turn, then, to nerve gas.

1989: The U.S. and the Soviet Union will agree to set up one vast metacomputer as a central source for information available to the entire world; this will be essential due to the huge amount of information coming into existence.

1993: An artificial life form will be created in a lab, probably in the U.S.S.R., thus reducing our interest in locating life forms on other planets.

1997: The first closed-dome colonies will be successfully established on Luna and on Mars. Through DNA modification, quasi-mutant humans will be created who can survive under non-Terran conditions, i.e., alien environments.

1998: The Soviet Union will test a propulsion drive that moves a starship at the velocity of light; a pilot ship will set out for Proxima Centaurus, soon to be followed by an American ship.

2000: An alien virus, brought back by an interplanetary ship, will decimate the population of Earth, but leave the colonies on Luna and Mars intact.

2010: Using tachyons (particles that move backward in time) as a carrier, the Soviet Union will attempt to alter the past with scientific information.

Also: “Computer use by ordinary citizens (already available in 1980) will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained, information-processing experts.”

(From David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace, The Book of Predictions, 1980.)

Of Thee I Sing

The editors of the Journal of Organic Chemistry received a novel submission in 1970 — Brown University chemists J.F. Bunnett and Francis Kearsley wrote their paper “Comparative Mobility of Halogens in Reactions of Dihalobenzenes With Potassium Amide in Ammonia” in blank verse:

Reactions of potassium amide
With halobenzenes in ammonia
Via benzyne intermediates occur.
Bergstrom and associates did report,
Based on two-component competition runs,
Bromobenzene the fastest to react,
By iodobenzene closely followed,
The chloro compound lagging far behind,
And flurobenzene to be quite inert
At reflux (-33°).

This goes on for three pages. The journal published it with a note: “Although we are open to new styles and formats for scientific publication, we must admit to surprise upon receiving this paper. However, we find the paper to be novel in its chemistry, and readable in its verse. Because of the somewhat increased space requirements and possible difficulty to some of our nonpoetically inclined readers, manuscripts in this format face an uncertain future in this office.”

(Thanks, Bob.)

Genaille-Lucas Rulers

French civil engineer Henri Genaille introduced these “rulers” in 1891 as a way to perform simple multiplication problems directly, without mental calculation.

A set consists of 10 numbered rulers and an “index.” To multiply 52749 by 4, arrange rulers 5, 2, 7, 4, and 9 side by side next to the index ruler. We’re multiplying by 4, so go to the 4th row and start at the top of the rightmost column:

Now just follow the gray triangles from right to left:

The answer is 210996. “[Édouard] Lucas gave these rulers enough publicity that they became quite popular for a number of years,” writes Michael R. Williams in William Aspray’s Computing Before Computers. “Unfortunately he never lived to see their popularity grow, for he died, aged 49, shortly after Genaille’s demonstration.”

User Friendly

Ook! is a programming language designed to be understood by orangutans. According to the design specification, the language has only three syntax elements (“Ook.” “Ook?” “Ook!”), and it “has no need of comments. The code itself serves perfectly well to describe in detail what it does and how it does it. Provided you are an orang-utan.”

This example prints the phrase “Hello world”:

Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook.
Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook?
Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook. Ook! Ook.
Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook? Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook! Ook? Ook! Ook? Ook. Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook.
Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook. Ook.
Ook! Ook. Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook.
Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook! Ook!
Ook! Ook. Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook? Ook. Ook. Ook! Ook.

“Um, that’s it. That’s the whole language. What do you expect for something usable by orang-utans?”

See Stage Business and Output.

Piece Work

tangram pythagoras

Tangrams can demonstrate the Pythagorean theorem. The yellow figure in the diagram above is a right triangle; the seven pieces that make up the square on the hypotenuse can be rearranged to form squares on the other two sides.

The third-century mathematician Liu Hui used to explain the theorem by dissecting and rearranging squares. Proper tangrams did not appear until centuries later, but modern Chinese mathematician Liu Dun writes, “We can hypothesize that the inventor of the Tangram, if not a mathematician, was at least inspired or enlightened by” this practice.

(From Jerry Slocum, The Tangram Book, 2003.)

The Balmis Expedition

Smallpox ravaged the New World for centuries after the Spanish conquest. In 1797 Edward Jenner showed that exposure to the cowpox virus could protect one against the disease, but the problem remained how to transport cowpox across the sea. In 1802 Charles IV of Spain announced a bold plan — 22 orphaned children would be sent by ship; after the first child was inoculated, his skin would exude fluid that could be passed to the next child. By passing the live virus from arm to arm, the children formed a transmission chain that could transport the vaccine in an era before refrigeration and other modern technology was available.

It worked. Over the next 10 years Spain spread the vaccine throughout the New World and to the Philippines, Macao, and China. Oklahoma State University historian Michael M. Smith writes, “These twenty-two innocents formed the most vital element of the most ambitious medical enterprise any government had ever undertaken.” Jenner himself wrote, “I don’t imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”


A charming little scene from mathematical history — in 1615 Gresham College geometry professor Henry Briggs rode the 300 miles from London to Edinburgh to meet John Napier, the discoverer of logarithms. A contemporary witnessed their meeting:

He brings Mr. Briggs up into My Lord’s chamber, where almost one quarter of an hour was spent, each beholding the other with admiration, before one word was spoke: at last Mr. Briggs began. ‘My Lord, I have undertaken this long journey purposely to see your person, and to know by what engine of wit or ingenuity you came first to think of this most excellent help unto Astronomy, viz. the Logarithms: but my Lord, being by you found out, I wonder nobody else found it before, when now being known it appears so easy.’

Their friendship was fast but short-lived: The first tables were published in 1614, and Napier died in 1617, perhaps due to overwork. In his last writings he notes that “owing to our bodily weakness we leave the actual computation of the new canon to others skilled in this kind of work, more particularly to that very learned scholar, my dear friend, Henry Briggs, public Professor of Geometry in London.”

A Magic Jigsaw

A “self-interlocking” geomagic square by Lee Sallows. The 16 lettered pieces pave a single large square, and smaller squares can be produced by various groups of four pieces — those drawn from each row, column, and long diagonal, and 10 other symmetrically chosen quartets.

“A Rough Justice”

British inventor Sir Robert Watson-Watt pioneered the development of radar, a contribution that helped the Royal Air Force win the Battle of Britain. Ironically, after the war he was pulled over for speeding by a Canadian policeman wielding a radar gun. His wife tried to point out the absurdity of the situation, but the officer wasn’t interested, and the couple drove away with a $12.50 fine. Watson-Watt wrote this poem:

Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot

And thus, with others I can mention,
the victim of his own invention.

His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly

but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist

and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.

Oh Frankenstein who lost control
of monsters man created whole,

with fondest sympathy regard
one more hoist with his petard.

As for you courageous boffins
who may be nailing up your coffins,

particularly those whose mission
deals in the realm of nuclear fission,

pause and contemplate fate’s counter plot
and learn with us what’s Watson-Watt.

(Thanks, Chris.)