A Late Carroll Game

Two years before he died, Lewis Carroll came up with a remarkable number-guessing game in which he’d send a volunteer through a long series of arithmetic manipulations, even allowing her to make some private decisions as to how to proceed. Along the way Carroll asked only three questions:

“Is the result odd or even?”

“Is the result odd or even?”

“How often does it go?”

And yet he would always be able to find the original number quickly. Here’s the procedure:

Think of a number (a positive integer).

Multiply by 3.

  • If the result is odd, then add either 5 or 9 (whichever you like), then divide by 2, then add 1.
  • If the result is even, then subtract either 2 or 6 (whichever you like), then divide by 2, then add 29 or 33 or 37 (whichever you like).

Multiply by 3.

  • If the result is odd, then add either 5 or 9 (whichever you like), then divide by 2, then add 1.
  • If the result is even, then subtract either 2 or 6 (whichever you like), then divide by 2, then add 29 or 33 or 37 (whichever you like).

Add 19 to original number you chose and append any digit, 0-9, to this number.

Add the previous result.

Divide by 7 and drop any remainder.

Divide by 7 again and drop any remainder, and tell me what result you get. (“How often does it go?”)

Here’s how to derive the number that was chosen originally:

Multiply the final answer by 4 and subtract 15. If the first answer was “even,” subtract 3 more, and if the second answer was “even,” subtract 2 more.

(Note: Carroll’s version contained an unfortunate flaw; the improvement given here was devised by Richard F. McCoart and includes a faster way to get the answer. See the article cited below. Carroll’s original appears in Morton N. Cohen’s Lewis Carroll, A Biography, 1995. Note too that the two “parity checks” above are identical, so the whole setup is easy to memorize and less bewilderingly complex than it’s intended to appear.)

(Richard F. McCoart, “Lewis Carroll’s Amazing Number-Guessing Game,” College Mathematics Journal 33:5 [November 2002], 378-383.)



This is remarkable — in 2014 ophthalmological neurologist Frederick Lepore showed this image to 100 migraine patients who experience a visual aura. (Click to enlarge.) 48 recognized it instantly.

“People are astonished,” Lepore told National Geographic. “They say, ‘Where did you get that?'”

He got it from English physician Hubert Airy, who had drawn his own aura in 1870, before the phenomenon was even understood.

(Via MetaFilter.)

Theory and Practice


All new ventures have their detractors, and James had his full share with the Cavendish project. One diminishing but still powerful school of critics held that, while experiments were necessary in research, they brought no benefit to teaching. A typical member was Isaac Todhunter, the celebrated mathematical tutor, who argued that the only evidence a student needed of a scientific truth was the word of his teacher, who was ‘probably a clergyman of mature knowledge, recognised ability, and blameless character’. One afternoon James bumped into Todhunter on King’s Parade and invited him to pop into the Cavendish to see a demonstration of conical refraction. Horrified, Todhunter replied: ‘No, I have been teaching it all my life and don’t want my ideas upset by seeing it now!’

— Basil Mahon, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, 2004

The Cute Response

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Humans feel affection for animals with juvenile features,” noted Konrad Lorenz. “Large eyes, bulging craniums, retreating chins. Small-eyed, long-snouted animals do not elicit the same response.”

This induces people to care for small, cuddly animals. “And this has led some experts to argue that the entire phenomenon of pet-keeping is nothing more nor less than an elaborate case of social parasitism,” writes zoologist James Serpell. “Needless to say, this idea has done little to promote a positive view of pets or their owners. Rather, it creates the impression that pet-owners are the victims of some kind of bizarre affliction, and that dogs, cats and budgerigars are little different from body lice, fleas or tapeworms or, indeed, any other sort of parasitic organism.”

(From James Serpell, In the Company of Animals, 1986.)

Good Faith


“Everyone believes in the normal law, the experimenters because they imagine that it is a mathematical theorem, and the mathematicians because they think it is an experimental fact.” — Gabriel Lippmann

(Thanks, Tom.)



I just noticed this last night in Joseph Wood Krutch’s Treasury of Bird Lore — in 1832 ornithologist Alexander Wilson encountered a flock of passenger pigeons near Frankfort, Kentucky, that he estimated at 2,230,270,000 birds. If each bird ate only a pint of beech nuts in the course of a day, the flock would consume nearly 35 million bushels a day. A century and a half earlier, in 1687, Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan, reported that pigeons had “so swarmed and ravaged the colonists’ crop near Montreal that a bishop was constrained to exorcise them with holy-water, as if they had been demons.”

Yet by 1914 human rapacity had reduced the species to a single bird, Martha, who died that year at the Cincinnati Zoo.

See The Eighth Plague.

Slime Computing

In 2012 computer scientist Andrew Adamatzky set a plasmodium of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum into a maze with an oat flake at its center. By following a gradient of chemo-attractants given off by the flake, the plasmodium was able to solve the maze in one pass, extending a protoplasmic tube to the target.

The original recording was made at one frame per five minutes; this playback is 25-30 frames per second.

(Andrew Adamatzky, “Slime Mold Solves Maze in One Pass, Assisted by Gradient of Chemo-Attractants,” IEEE Transactions on Nanobioscience 11:2 [2012], 131-134.)


“It is interesting that most of the human race has a reserve of the enzyme necessary to render alcohol harmless to the body — as if nature meant us to drink alcohol, unlike animals to which alcohol is a poison.”

BUPA News, 1982, quoted in Richard Gordon, Great Medical Mysteries, 2014