A Box Code


In Robert Chambers’ 1906 novel The Tracer of Lost Persons, Mr. Keen copies the figure above from a mysterious photograph. He is trying to help Captain Harren find a young woman with whom he has become obsessed.

“It’s the strangest cipher I ever encountered,” he says at length. “The strangest I ever heard of. I have seen hundreds of ciphers — hundreds — secret codes of the State Department, secret military codes, elaborate Oriental ciphers, symbols used in commercial transactions, symbols used by criminals and every species of malefactor. And every one of them can be solved with time and patience and a little knowledge of the subject. But this … this is too simple.”

The message reveals the name of the young woman whom Captain Harren has been seeking. What is it?

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Hall’s Marriage Theorem


Suppose we have a group of n men and n women. Each of the women can find some subset of the men whom she would be happy to marry. And each of the men would be happy with any woman who will have him. Is it always possible to pair everyone off into happy marriages?

Clearly this won’t work if, for example, two of the women have their hearts set on the same man and won’t be happy with anyone else. In general, for any subset of the women, we need to be sure that they can reconcile their preferences so that each of them finds a mate.

Surprisingly, though, that’s all that’s required. So long as every subset of women can collectively express interest in a group of men at least as numerous as their own, it will always be possible to marry off the whole group into happy couples.

The theorem was proved by English mathematician Philip Hall in 1935. Another application of the same principle: Shuffle an ordinary deck of 52 playing cards and deal it into 13 piles of 4 cards each. Now it’s always possible to assemble a run of 13 cards, ace through king, by drawing one card from each pile.



As early as the 1st century B.C., the Chinese text Zhou Bi Suan Jing reflected the reasoning of the Pythagorean theorem, showing how to find the hypotenuse of the 3-4-5 triangle. Arrange four 3×4 rectangles around a unit square, as shown, producing a 7×7 square. The diagonals of the four rectangles produce a tilted square. Now, the area of the 7×7 square is 49, and the area of one right triangle with legs 3 and 4 is 6. So the area of the tilted square is 49 – (4 × 6), or 25. This shows that the hypotenuse of each of the right triangles is 5.

In Mathematics and the Aesthetic (2007), Nathalie Sinclair writes, “The Chinese diagram … is the same as one given by the twelfth-century Indian scholar Bhaskara, whose one-word injunction Behold! recorded his sense of awe.”

Two for One


Mountains on Saturn’s moon Titan are named after mountains in Middle-earth, the fictional setting of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels.

The highest peak on Titan is Mount Doom (“Doom Mons”), which rises more than a mile above the surrounding plain. Tolkien’s Mount Doom made its first appearance in The Lord of the Rings in 1954.

By coincidence, science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum had already placed a fictional Mount Doom on Titan in his 1935 story Flight on Titan.

So, in honoring Tolkien, the International Astronomical Union also fulfilled Weinbaum’s vision.



Drape a chain of evenly spaced weights over a pair of (frictionless) inclined planes like this. What will happen? There’s more mass on the left side, but the slope on the right side is steeper. Simon Stevin (1548-1620) realized that in fact the chain won’t move at all — if it did, we could link the ends as shown and produce a perpetual motion machine.

This is remembered as the “Epitaph of Stevinus.” Richard Feynman wrote, “If you get an epitaph like that on your gravestone, you are doing fine.”

Hope and Change

u.s. coins

The denominations of U.S. coins make intuitive sense, but they can be unwieldy: It can take up to eight coins to assemble an amount up through 99¢. Indeed, producing 99¢ takes (1 × 50¢) + (1 × 25¢) + (2 × 10¢) + (4 × 1¢). What five denominations would minimize the number of coins ever needed to make change?

In The Math Chat Book, Frank Morgan reports that with coins of 1¢, 3¢, 11¢, 27¢, and 34¢, you never need more than 5 coins to make change. For example, now 99¢ = (2 × 34¢) + (1 × 27¢) + (1 × 3¢) + (1 × 1¢). Of the 1,129 possible solutions, this one requires the fewest coins on average (3.343).

Unfortunately, this system is a bit tricky too — to assemble some totals, it’s more efficient to use a few middle-size coins rather than starting with the largest value possible. For example, if you assemble 54¢ by starting with a 34¢ coin, it takes four additional coins to gather the remaining 20¢: (1 × 11¢) + (3 × 3¢). It would have been simpler to choose 2 × 27¢, but that’s not immediately evident.

Turning Point

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This pretty proof of the Pythagorean theorem is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Draw a right triangle and construct a square on each side, and make a copy of the original triangle and add it to the bottom of the hypotenuse square as shown. Now the shaded hexagon in the first figure can be rotated 90 degrees clockwise around the indicated point to occupy the position shown in the second figure. The orange and green quadrilaterals in the second figure are seen to be congruent to those in the first figure: The three shortest sides of the orange quadrilateral in the second figure correspond to their counterparts in the first, and the angles between them are assembled from the same constituents. The same is true of the green quadrilaterals. In each figure the shaded hexagon contains two instances of the original right triangle; remove these and we can see that the two squares in the first figure equal the large square in the second figure, proving Pythagoras.

10/10/2021 UPDATE: A number of readers point out that only the orange quadrilateral here can properly be said to turn; in the second diagram the green quadrilateral has been reflected as well. (Thanks, Mark and Bill.)


In a December 1985 letter to the Mathematical Gazette, Middlesex Polytechnic mathematician Ivor Grattan-Guinness writes that Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy “would sometimes go around the Observatory, and on finding an empty box, insert a piece of paper saying ‘Empty box’ and thereby falsify its description! This last achievement deserves, in my proposal, the name of ‘Airy’s paradox’.”

A Geometric Illusion

geometric illusion

Which of the two shaded areas is larger, the central disc or the outer ring?

Surprisingly, they’re equal. Each of the concentric circles has a radius 1 unit larger than the last. So the area of the central disc is π × 32 square units, and the area of the outer ring is π × 52 – π × 42 = π × 32 square units. So the two areas are the same.

A Cool Customer

A brewery stored its beer in a cellar some distance from the bottling plant. The cellar was cooled by pipes that circulated a saline solution from a central cooling unit. The main pipe that connected this cooling unit and the cellar happened to pass near the cellar of a retailer.

The brewery’s owner eventually discovered that the retailer was using the saline solution to cool his own cellar. He sued the retailer for theft, but the judge ruled, “In accordance with Article 242 of the Criminal Code, theft is the unlawful appropriation of commodities belonging to another party. In the present case no theft has been committed, since the saline solution was not misappropriated; rather, it was returned in its entirety to the brewery’s main pipe.”

The brewery owner appealed the case, arguing, “The issue is not the theft of saline solution but the theft of energy. If the saline solution is used to cool the defendant’s cellar in addition to my own, I have to pay more for electricity to operate the central cooling unit.”

The court of appeals ruled: “The saline solution acquires heat from the retailer’s cellar; therefore, energy belonging to the brewery is not being stolen. On the contrary, the brewery is receiving gratuitous energy from the retailer.”

This story appeared in a German scientific monograph, “Questions of Thermodynamical Analysis,” by P. Grassman. In propounding it in May 1990, Quantum added, “We all agree the judge was wrong, but not everyone can correctly explain his error. Can you?”