Science & Math

Corner Market

corner market diagram

From Martin Gardner, via Michael Stueben: Obtain a slab of gold measuring 10″ x 11″ x 1″. Divide it diagonally and then cut a triangular notch in two corners as shown. Remove these notches as profit, and slide the remaining halves together to produce a new 10″ x 11″ x 1″ slab. The process can be repeated to yield any amount of money you like!

No Attraction

Kepler’s second law holds that a line segment connecting an orbiting planet to its sun sweeps out equal areas in equal periods of time: In the diagram above, if the time intervals t are equal, then so are the areas A.

If gravity were turned off, would this still be true?

Click for Answer


Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.

In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.

“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”

(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)

Worth Remembering

William D. Harvey offered this in Omni in 1980 — a mnemonic for spelling mnemonics:

Mnemonics neatly eliminate man’s only nemesis: insufficient cerebral storage.

First Things First

We [Einstein and Ernst Straus] had finished the preparation of a paper and were looking for a paper clip. After opening a lot of drawers we finally found one which turned out to be too badly bent for use. So we were looking for a tool to straighten it. Opening a lot more drawers we came upon a whole box of unused paper clips. Einstein immediately started to shape one of them into a tool to straighten the bent one. When asked what he was doing, he said, ‘Once I am set on a goal, it becomes difficult to deflect me.’

— Ernst Straus, “Memoir,” in A.P. French, ed., Einstein: A Centenary Volume, 1979

(Einstein said to an assistant at Princeton that this was the most characteristic anecdote that could be told of him.)


“[John] von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!” — Richard Feynman

He expands on this in Christopher Sykes’ No Ordinary Genius (1994):

“I got the idea of ‘active irresponsibility’ in Los Alamos. We often went on walks, and one day I was with the great mathematician von Neumann and a few other people. I think Bethe and von Neumann were discussing some social problem that Bethe was very worried about. Von Neumann said, ‘I don’t feel any responsibility for all these social problems. Why should I? I’m born into the world, I didn’t make it.’ Something like that. Well, I’ve read von Neumann’s autobiography and it seems to me that he felt perpetually responsible, but at that moment this was a new idea to me, and I caught onto it. Around you all the time there are people telling you what your responsibilities are, and I thought it was kind of brave to be actively irresponsible. ‘Active’ because, like democracy, it takes eternal vigilance to maintain it — in a university you have to perpetually watch out, and be careful that you don’t do anything to help anybody!”

Hans Bethe:

“Feynman somehow was proud of being irresponsible. He concentrated on his science, and on enjoying life. There are some of us — including myself — who felt after the end of the Second World War that we had a great responsibility to explain atomic weapons, and to try and make the government do sensible things about atomic weapons. … Feynman didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I think quite rightly. I think it would be quite wrong if all scientists worked on discharging their responsibility. You need some number of them, but it should only be a small fraction of the total number of scientists. Among the leading scientists, there should be some who do not feel responsible, and who only do what science is supposed to accomplish.”

Marvin Minsky:

“I must say I have a little of this sense of social irresponsibility, and Feynman was a great inspiration to me — I have done a good deal of it since. There are several reasons for a scientist to be irresponsible, and one of them I take very seriously: people say, ‘Are you sure you should be working on this? Can’t it be used for bad?’ Well, I have a strong feeling that good and bad are things to be thought about by people who understand better than I do the interactions among people, and the causes of suffering. The worst thing I can imagine is for somebody to ask me to decide whether a certain innovation is good or bad.”

Langton’s Ant

Set an ant down on a grid of squares and ask it to follow two rules:

  1. If you find yourself on a white square, turn 90° right, change the color of the square to black, and move forward one unit.
  2. If you find yourself on a black square, turn 90° left, change the color of the square to white, and move forward one unit.

That’s it. At first the ant will seem to mill around uncertainly, as above, producing an irregular jumble of black and white squares. But after about 10,000 steps it will start to build a “highway,” following a repeating loop of 104 steps that unfolds forever (below). Computer scientist Chris Langton discovered the phenomenon in 1986.

Will this happen even if some of the starting squares are black? So far the answer appears to be yes — in every initial configuration that’s been tested, the ant eventually produces a highway. If there’s an exception, no one has found it yet.

Asked and Answered

A college professor once offered the following creative final exam: Write a suitable final exam for this course and supply a key. The first paper handed in read ‘Final Exam: Write suitable final exam for this course and supply a key. Key: Any reasonable variation of the previous sentence = 100%.’

— Michael Stueben, Twenty Years Before the Blackboard, 1998


Have no parts or joints.
How then can they combine
To form a line?

— J.A. Lindon


In 1960 Jane Goodall watched a chimpanzee repeatedly poking pieces of grass into a termite mound in order to “fish” for insects, the first observation of tool use among animals. When she notified anthropologist Louis Leakey of her discovery, he responded with a telegram:


Night Crossing

In late March 1938, Antonio Carrelli received a letter and a telegram in short succession. Both were from Ettore Majorana, the brilliant Italian physicist who had recently joined the faculty of the Naples Physics Institute, where Carrelli was director.

The letter read, “Dear Carrelli, I made a decision that has become unavoidable. There isn’t a bit of selfishness in it, but I realize what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students. For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially for betraying the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you gave me over the past months. I ask you to remind me to all those I learned to know and appreciate in your Institute, especially Sciuti: I will keep a fond memory of them all at least until 11 pm tonight, possibly later too. E. Majorana.”

The telegram had been sent immediately afterward: “Dear Carrelli, I hope you got my telegram and my letter at the same time. The sea rejected me and I’ll be back tomorrow at the Hotel Bologna traveling perhaps with this letter. However, I have the intention of giving up teaching. Don’t think I’m like an Ibsen heroine, because the case is different. I’m at your disposal for further details. E. Majorana.”

On investigation it was found that Majorana had withdrawn all the money from his bank account and taken the night boat from Naples to Palermo on March 23. He had sent both messages from Palermo and then boarded the steamer to return to Naples on the night of March 25.

But there the trail ended. On the return journey Majorana had shared a compartment with a local university professor, but beyond this point no trace of him could be found. His family offered a reward of 30,000 lire for his whereabouts, and Enrico Fermi implored Mussolini for aid, citing the “deep brilliance” of Majorana’s physics, which he compared to those of Galileo and Newton. A police search found no body but offered no clues.

What happened to him? Theories abound: The most natural explanation, that he committed suicide, is discounted by both his family and the bishop of Trapani, citing his strong Catholic faith. (Also, it doesn’t explain the withdrawal of the money.) Other theories contend that he was murdered, that he fled physics because he foresaw the advent of nuclear weapons, that he had a spiritual crisis and joined a monastery, that he became a beggar, and that he moved to South America. No one knows.

(Barry R. Holstein, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana,” from the Carolina International Symposium on Neutrino Physics, 2008.)

“Opus 34″

A magic square by Lee Sallows. The 16 pieces progress in area from 1 to 16, and those in each row, column, and long diagonal can be assembled to form the same target shape with area 34.

The Road Coloring Problem

Every road in this little town is a one-way street, and each street is colored either red or blue. This has a helpful effect: If you start at any house in town and follow the sequence blue-red-red three times in a row, you’ll always arrive at the yellow house.

If you follow blue-blue-red three times, you’ll always arrive at the green one.

In 1970 Roy Adler and Benjamin Weiss asked whether it’s always possible to create such a coloring in a given network; in 2009 Avraham Trahtman proved that, within certain constraints, it is.

Pi Without Circles

The sum of the squares of the reciprocals of the positive integers is π2/6.

The sum of their fourth powers is π4/90.

The sum of their sixth powers is π6/945.

The area of the region under the Gaussian curve y = e-x2 is the square root of π.

The probability that two integers chosen at random will have no prime factor in common is 6/π2.

The integer 8 can be written as the sum of two squares of integers, m2 + n2, in four ways, when (m, n) is (2, 2), (2, -2), (-2, 2), or (-2, -2). The integer 7 can’t be written at all as the sum of such squares. Over a very large collection of integers from 1 to n, the average number of ways an integer can be written as the sum of two squares approaches π. Why?

In a Word

n. a hoarder of books

In the rare book collection of the archives at Caltech is a copy of Adrien-Marie Legendre’s 1808 text on number theory. It comes from the collection of Eric Temple Bell, who taught mathematics at Caltech from 1926 to 1953. Inside the book is an inscription in Bell’s handwriting:

This book survived the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April, 1906. It was buried with about 600 others, in a vacant lot, before the fire reached the spot. The house next door to the lot fell upon the cache; the tar from the roof baked the 4 feet of dirt, covering the books, to brick, and incinerated all but 4 books, of which this is one. Signed: E. T. Bell. Book buried just below Grace Church, at California and Stockton Streets. House number 729 California Street.

During the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys came upon Sir William Batten burying his wine in a pit in his garden. Pepys “took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of” and later buried “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” I don’t know whether he ever recovered them.

Moments of Inspiration

James Watt perfects the steam engine, 1765:

I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sunday afternoon. I had entered the Green and had passed the old washing house. I was thinking up on the engine at the time and had got as far as the herd’s house, when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and that if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it and might there be condensed without cooling the cylinder. I had not walked farther than the golf house when the whole thing was arranged clearly in my mind.

Charles Darwin realizes why species diverge, 1840s:

I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.

Walter Cannon recognizes the fight-or-flight response, 1911:

As a matter of routine I have long trusted unconscious processes to serve me. … [One] example I may cite was the interpretation of the significance of bodily changes which occur in great emotional excitement, such as fear and rage. These changes — the more rapid pulse, the deeper breathing, the increase in sugar in the blood, the secretion from the adrenal glands — were very diverse and seemed unrelated. Then, one wakeful night, after a considerable collection of these changes had been disclosed, the idea flashed through my mind that they could be nicely integrated if conceived as bodily preparations for supreme effort in flight or in fighting.

William Rowan Hamilton conceives the fundamental formula for quaternions, 1843:

But on the 16th day of the same month — which happened to be a Monday, and a Council day of the Royal Irish Academy — I was walking in to attend and preside, and your mother was walking with me, along the Royal Canal, to which she had perhaps driven; and although she talked with me now and then, yet an under-current of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance. An electric circuit seemed to close; and a spark flashed forth, the herald (as I foresaw, immediately) of many long years to come of definitely directed thought and work, by myself if spared, and at all events on the part of others, if I should even be allowed to live long enough distinctly to communicate the discovery.

Hamilton adds: “Nor could I resist the impulse — unphilosophical as it may have been — to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula with the symbols, i, j, k; namely,

i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1

which contains the Solution of the Problem, but of course, as an inscription, has long since mouldered away.” The bridge now bears a permanent plaque marking Hamilton’s achievement (below), and mathematicians undertake an annual walk from Dunsink Observatory to commemorate it.

On the Couch

In the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the subject is asked whether he agrees with a series of statements, such as “There seems to be a lump in my throat much of the time,” “I am not afraid to handle money,” “I feel uneasy indoors,” and “My sleep is fitful and disturbed.” His responses give insights into his personality and psychopathology.

In 2006, poet Katie Degentesh fed these statements into Google and combined the results into a series of poems, which she published as The Anger Scale. Here’s an excerpt from “As a youngster I was suspended from school one or more times for cutting up”:

Everyone knows about Dallas
and its acts of terrifying gorgeousness

a chef in a tall hat piping meringue
discussing the “brain drain”

dropped a slab of concrete on his left foot
before being lured to the guitar

doesn’t recall details of cutting up friend
to create fake masterpiece

Poets Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith call this “a ‘pataphysical nosography, evaluating and diagnosing the mental stability of the Internet itself.” But how do we evaluate the results?

Archimedes’ Twin Circles

Pick any three points on a line and use each pair of them to define a semicircle, as shown.

Now draw a perpendicular between the two smaller semicircles.

Circles c1 and c2 will always have the same area.

Community Spirit

Considerable amusement was excited, a few years ago, by the announcement that a society for mutual autopsy had been formed among the savants of Paris, with a view to advancing knowledge of the structure and physiology of the brain by a correlation of intellectual characteristics with post mortem appearances. The whole thing was generally regarded as a scientific joke of more than ordinary magnitude. But the society appears to have been a genuine fact, and one of its members, M. Asseline, having recently deceased, his brain was carefully examined by his surviving associates, who made a full report of the result to the Anthropological Society of Paris. The following account of the matter is found in Nature, Aug. 14, 1879, p. 377:

‘M. Asseline died in 1878, at the age of 49. He was a republican and a materialist; was possessed of enormous capacity for work, great faculty of mental assimilation, and an extraordinarily retentive memory; and had a gentle, benevolent disposition, keen susceptibilities, refined taste and subtle wit. As a writer he had always displayed great learning, unusual force of style and elegance of diction, and in his intercourse with others he had been unassuming, sensitive and even timid. Yet the autopsy showed such coarseness and thickness of the convolutions that M. Broca pronounced them to be characteristic of an inferior brain. The fossa or depressions, regarded by Gratiolet as a simian character, and as a sign of cerebral inferiority which are often found in women, and in some men of undoubted intellectual inferiority, were very much marked, especially on the left parietooccipital. But the cranial bones were at some points so thin as to be translucent; the cerebral depressions were deeply marked, the frontal suture was not wholly ossified, a decided degree of asymmetry was manifested in the greater prominence of the right frontal, while, moreover, the brain weighed 1,468 grams, i.e., about 60 grains above the average given by M. Broca for M. Asseline’s age. The apparent contradictions between the weight of the brain and the marked character of the parieto-occipital depressions, attracted much attention, and the members of the Société d’Anthropologie have been earnestly invited by M. Hovelacque, in furtherance of science, to join the Société d’Autopsie, to which anthropology is already indebted for many highly important observations. This society is forming a collection of photographs of its members, which are taken in accordance with certain fixed rules.’

Chicago Medical Journal and Examiner, quoted in New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, January 1880

A Knotty Problem

In a 2002 article in Nature, Australian mathematician Burkard Polster concluded that most of us are doing a pretty good job lacing our shoes: “No matter whether you prefer to lace them straight or criss-crossed, you come close to maximizing the total horizontal tension when you pull on the two ends of one of your shoelaces.”

When it comes to tying them, though, we don’t do so well. “A very large number of people, possibly even the majority, do tie their shoe laces much worse than the rest,” Polster wrote in his 2006 book-length followup, The Shoelace Book. Most of us tie a shoe by placing one half-granny knot on top of another, but this can produce either a very unstable granny knot (left) or a very stable reef knot (right), depending on whether the two half-knots have the same or opposite orientation. (It’s not essential that the second half-granny is typically tied with loops; these are omitted in the diagrams.)

“Hundreds of years of trial and error have led to the strongest way of lacing our shoes,” Polster wrote in Nature, “but unfortunately the same cannot be said about the way in which most of us tie our shoelaces — with a granny knot.”

(Burkard Polster, “What is the best way to lace your shoes?” Nature 2002: 476.)


When I was a child, it was believed that animals became extinct because they were too specialized. My father used to tell us about the saber-tooth tiger’s teeth — how they got too big and the tiger couldn’t eat because he couldn’t take game anymore. And I remember my father saying, with my brother sitting there, ‘I wonder what it will be with the human beings that will be so overspecialized that they’ll kill themselves off?’

My father never found out that my brother was working on the bomb.

— Richard Feynman’s sister Joan, quoted in Christopher Sykes, No Ordinary Genius, 1994

Sweet Home,_early_morning_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

I am determined & feel sure, that the scenery of England is ten times more beautiful than any we have seen.– What reasonable person can wish for great ill proportioned mountains, two & three miles high? No, no; give me the Brythen or some such compact little hill.– And then as for your boundless plains & impenetrable forests, who would compare them with the green fields & oak woods of England?– People are pleased to talk of the ever smiling sky of the Tropics: must not this be precious nonsense? Who admires a lady’s face who is always smiling? England is not one of your insipid beauties; she can cry, & frown, & smile, all by turns.– In short I am convinced it is a most ridiculous thing to go round the world, when by staying quietly, the world will go round with you.

— Charles Darwin, letter to his sister, July 18, 1836. He was on board the Beagle, bound for Ascencion. He had written the previous December, “How glad I shall be, when I can say, like that good old Quarter Master, who entering the Channel, on a gloomy November morning, exclaimed, ‘Ah here there are none of those d—-d blue skys’.”

Budget Trouble

An energetic boy got a piggy bank for his birthday. He decided that from then on he will number every bill he gets from his grandparents (1, 2, …) and put it all in his bank. During the first half year he got 2 bills, but at the end of this period he pulled out 1 bill (chosen at random). In the next 1/4 year he got 2 more bills, but at the end of this period he pulled 1 bill chosen at random from the 3 bills in his bank. In the next 1/8 year he repeated the same routine etc. (each period is half the length of the previous period). What is the probability that any of the bills he got during this year will remain in his bank after a full year of the above activity? Paradoxically the probability is 0, even though it is clear that he only spent half of his money. Can we offer the boy good financial advice without making him cut his expenses?

— Talma Leviatan, “On the Use of Paradoxes in the Teaching of Probability,” Proceedings of ICOTS 6, 2002

The Meaning of Life

Along with art and love, life is one of those bedeviling concepts that we really ought to have a definition for but don’t. Philosophers tend to regard the question as too scientific, and scientists as too philosophical. Linus Pauling observed that it’s easier to study the subject than to define it, and, J.B.S. Haldane noted, “no definition will cover its infinite and self-contradictory variety.”

Classical definitions of life typically refer to structural features, growth, reproduction, metabolism, motion against force, response to stimuli, evolvability, and information content and transfer. But definitions built on these elements are prone to exceptions. Fire grows, moves, metabolizes, reproduces, and responds to stimuli, but is “nonliving.” So are free-market economies and the Internet, which evolve, store representations of themselves, and behave “purposefully.” I am nonreproducing but, I hope, still alive.

If we we look around us, it’s hard to find a property that’s unique to life, and even if we could, our observations are limited to Earth’s biosphere, a tiny, tenuous environment like a film of water on a basketball. But if we expand our list to include abstract properties such as resistance to entropy, then we risk including alien phenomena that we might not regard intuitively as living.

Perhaps the answer is more poetic. “As I see it, the great and distinguishing feature of living things … is that they have needs — continual, and, incidentally, complex needs,” wrote botanist Donald C. Peattie in 1935. “I cannot conceive how even so organized a dead system as a crystal can be said to need anything. But a living creature, even when it sinks into that half-death of hibernation, even the seed in the bottom of the driest Mongolian marsh, awaiting rain through two thousand years, still has needs while there is life in it.”