The Return of Monty Hall

In 2003, Danish computer scientist Peter Bro Miltersen discussed a surprisingly effective technique by which a player might guess the colors of slips of paper hidden in boxes (PDF). As this circulated in the mathematical community it evolved into a puzzle in which a group of 100 prisoners must find their own names on slips of paper. I wrote about it in 2011.

When Eugene Curtin and Max Warshauer wrote about the prisoner puzzle in The Mathematical Intelligencer in December 2006, reader A.S. Landsberg offered a variant called “The Return of Monty Hall.” On a new game show for couples, there are three curtains, which hide a key, a car, and a goat. One member of the couple is the “car-master” — she must find the car. The other is the “key-master” — he must find the key. If both succeed in their tasks, they win the new car. If either fails, they win the goat.

The key-master is led out of the room, where he can’t observe the proceedings, and then the car-master has two tries to find the car (open one curtain, and if the car isn’t there, open another curtain). If she finds the car, then all the curtains are closed again and the key-master is brought on to find the key. No communication at all is permitted between the two at this point. As before, the key-master has two tries to find the key by opening curtains.

If the couple play optimally, their odds of winning the car are a surprising 2/3. They do this using Miltersen’s technique. The car-master is Player #1, the key-master is Player #2, the car is Prize #1, the key is Prize #2, and the goat is Prize #3. The strategy is simply for each player to start by opening the curtain corresponding to his or her own player number, and if unsuccessful to open the curtain number corresponding to the prize number that the first curtain reveals. So, for example, the car-master, who is Player #1, begins by opening Curtain #1. If she finds the car then she’s done; if she finds the key (Prize #2) then she opens Curtain #2, and if she finds the goat (Prize #3) then she opens Curtain #3. When the curtains are reclosed, the key-master begins his turn by opening Curtain #2 (since he’s Player #2) and following the same plan.

That’s it. It’s not guaranteed to work, but it’s a simple strategy that requires minimal preparation and no communication at all once the game has begun. The universe of possibilities is so small that we can simply count them — here are the various arrangements of prizes and the resulting outcomes:

car-key-goat: win
car-goat-key: win
key-goat-car: lose
key-car-goat: win
goat-key-car: win
goat-car-key: lose

Landsberg’s letter brought a comment by reader Eric Grunwald, who pointed out that a third person can be introduced to the Monty Hall game without reducing the overall chance of success. Replace the goat with a GPS system and add a third contestant, the “GPS-master.” Following the same rules, and again forbidding any communication among the contestants, Miltersen’s strategy ensures a 2/3 probability that all three players find their prizes.


  • Consecutive U.S. presidents Grant, Hayes, and Garfield were all born in Ohio and served as Civil War generals.
  • Travel due south from Buffalo and you’ll reach the Pacific Ocean.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. shook hands with both John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy.
  • This false statement is not self-referential.
  • “When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.” — Cicero

In the 2004 film Shark Tale, the shark Lenny coughs up several items onto a table. Among them is a Louisiana license plate, number 007 0 981. The same plate is retrieved from sharks in both Jaws and Deep Blue Sea.

The One-Seventh Ellipse

The decimal expansion of 1/7 is 0.142857142857 …, a repeating decimal. Arrange the six repeating digits into overlapping ordered pairs, like so:

(1, 4), (4, 2), (2, 8), (8, 5), (5, 7) (7, 1),

and, remarkably, all six lie on an ellipse:

19x2 + 36yx + 41y2 – 333x – 531y + 1638 = 0

one-seventh ellipse #1

Even more remarkably, if we take the digits two at a time:

(14, 28), (42, 85), (28, 57), (85, 71), (57, 14), (71, 42),

these points also lie on an ellipse:

-165104x2 + 160804yx + 8385498x – 41651y2 – 3836349y – 7999600 = 0

one-seventh ellipse #2

That’s from David Wells, The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers (1986). Victor Hugo wrote, “Mankind is not a circle with a single center but an ellipse with two focal points, of which facts are one and ideas the other.”

A Guest Appearance

The Fibonacci numbers are the ones in this sequence:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, …

Each number is the sum of the two that precede it. But now, interestingly:

\displaystyle  \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{1} \right ) = \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{2} \right ) + \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{3} \right )\\  \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{3} \right ) = \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{5} \right ) + \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{8} \right )\\  \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{8} \right ) = \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{13} \right ) + \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{21} \right )\\  \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{21} \right ) = \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{34} \right ) + \mathrm{arctan} \left ( \frac{1}{55} \right )\\

“And so on!” writes James Tanton in Mathematics Galore! (2012). “The first relation, for instance, states that a line of slope 1/2 stacked with a line of slope 1/3 gives a line of slope 1. (Can you prove the relations?)”

(Ko Hayashi, “Fibonacci Numbers and the Arctangent Function,” Mathematics Magazine 76:3 [June 2003], 215.)


“Stopping by Euclid’s Proof of the Infinitude of Primes,” by Presbyterian College mathematician Brian D. Beasley, “with apologies to Robert Frost”:

Whose proof this is I think I know.
I can’t improve upon it, though;
You will not see me trying here
To offer up a better show.

His demonstration is quite clear:
For contradiction, take the mere
n primes (no more), then multiply;
Add one to that … the end is near.

In vain one seeks a prime to try
To split this number — thus, a lie!
The first assumption was a leap;
Instead, the primes will reach the sky.

This proof is lovely, sharp, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And tests to grade before I sleep,
And tests to grade before I sleep.

(From Mathematics Magazine 78:2 [April 2005], 171.)

Notes and Measures

Howard Shapiro chose an unusual way to present his paper “Fluorescent Dyes for Differential Counts by Flow Cytometry” at the 1977 meeting of the Histochemical Society — he sang it:

Blood cells are classified by cell and nuclear shape and size
And texture, and affinity for different types of dyes,
And almost all of these parameters can quickly be
Precisely measured by techniques of flow cytometry.

It’s hard to fix a cell suspension rapidly and stain
With several fluorochromes, and this procedure, while it plain-
Ly furnishes the data which one needs to classify,
May fade away, and newer, simpler, methods never dye. …

The full paper, 76 verses with figures and sheet music, is here.

The Fifth Card

I hand you an ordinary deck of 52 cards. You inspect and shuffle it, then choose five cards from the deck and hand them to my assistant. She looks at them and passes four of them to me. I name the fifth card.

At first this appears impossible. The hidden card is one of 48 possibilities, and by passing me four cards in some order my assistant can have sent me only 1 of 4! = 24 messages. How am I able to name the card?

Part of the secret is that my assistant gets to choose which card to withhold. The group of five cards that you’ve chosen must contain two cards of the same suit. My assistant chooses one of these to be the hidden card and passes me the other one. Now I know the suit of the hidden card, and there are 12 possibilities as to its rank. But my assistant can pass me only three more cards, with 3! = 6 possible messages, so the task still appears impossible.

The rest of the secret lies in my assistant’s choice as to which of the two same-suit cards to give me. Think of the 13 card ranks arranged in a circle (with A=1, J=11, Q=12, and K=13). Given two ranks, it’s always possible to get from one to the other in at most 6 steps by traveling “the short way” around the circle. So we agree on a convention beforehand: We’ll imagine that the ranks increase in value A-K, and the suits as in bridge (or alphabetical) order, clubs-diamonds-hearts-spades. This puts the whole deck into a specified order, and my assistant can pass me the three remaining cards in one of six ways:

{low, middle, high} = 1
{low, high, middle} = 2
{middle, low, high} = 3
{middle, high, low} = 4
{high, low, middle} = 5
{high, middle, low} = 6

So if my assistant knows that I’ll always travel clockwise around the imaginary circle, she can choose the first card to establish the suit of the hidden card and to specify one point on the circle, and then order the remaining three cards to tell me how many clockwise steps to take from that point to reach the hidden rank.

“If you haven’t seen this trick before, the effect really is remarkable; reading it in print does not do it justice,” writes mathematician Michael Kleber. “I am forever indebted to a graduate student in one audience who blurted out ‘No way!’ just before I named the hidden card.”

It first appeared in print in Wallace Lee’s 1950 book Math Miracles. Lee attributes it to William Fitch Cheney, a San Francisco magician and the holder of the first math Ph.D. ever awarded by MIT.

(Michael Kleber, “The Best Card Trick,” Mathematical Intelligencer 24:1 [December 2002], 9-11.)

Risky Business
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1982, MIT physicist A.P. French received this letter from a writer in New Rochelle, N.Y.:

Being a safety minded individual I thought I would write you before experimenting on my own. Is it safe to mix Antipasto and Pasta together and could this be a future energy supply?

He responded:

I believe that your thoughtful and interesting suggestion about the mixing of pasta and antipasto deserves some acknowledgment. This process might well be a significant energy source — but only, I think, intragastrically. I estimate that the digestion of 1 lb of the mixture would release energy equivalent to about 0.001 megawatt hours or 0.000001 kilotons of TNT. I would not foresee any unusual hazards.

(From Robert L. Weber, ed., Science With a Smile, 1992.)

Fellow Travelers

In short, if all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable, since for every massing of human beings there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.

— Nathan Cobb, “Nematodes and Their Relationships,” Yearbook United States Department of Agriculture, 1914

(Thanks, Mick.)