The Sea Island Problem

The Chinese mathematician Liu Hui offered this technique in a text composed about 500 years after Euclid. We’re on the mainland, and we want to find the height of a mountain on a distant island without crossing the sea.

Liu Hui showed that this can be accomplished by setting up two poles of a known height in a line with the mountain …
Image: Wikimedia Commons

… and by appealing to a principle of complementary rectangles — here the red and the blue rectangles have the same area:
Image: Wikimedia Commons

By using that principle it’s possible to recast the problem in terms of values that we can measure: the height of the poles (CD), the “offset” from which the top of the mountain can just be sighted from ground level over the top of each pole (DG and FH), and the distance between the poles (DF). Putting all that together we can find both the height of the mountain:

 \displaystyle \frac{CD \times DF}{FH - DG} + CD

and the distance between the first pole and the mountain:

 \displaystyle \frac{DG \times DF}{FH - DG}

without ever leaving the mainland. Penn State University mathematician Frank Swetz concluded that “in the endeavours of mathematical surveying, China’s accomplishments exceeded those realized in the West by about one thousand years.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1940 Bertrand Russell was invited to teach logic at the City College of New York.

A Mrs. Kay of Brooklyn opposed the appointment, citing Russell’s agnosticism and his alleged practice of sexual immorality.

In the lawsuit his works were described as “lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, erotomaniac, aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrowminded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber.”

“Although he lost the case, the aging Russell was delighted to have been described as ‘aphrodisiac,'” writes Betsy Devine in Absolute Zero Gravity. “‘I cannot think of any predecessors,’ he claimed, ‘except Apuleius and Othello.'”

Dance Lessons

The quicksort computer sorting algorithm demonstrated with Hungarian folk dance, from Romania’s Sapientia University.


The four queens puzzle solved using ballet.

Binary search through flamenco dance.

Merge sort via Transylvanian-Saxon folk dance.

Selection sort using Gypsy folk dance.


(Via MetaFilter.)

01/19/2019 UPDATE: When Gavin Taylor showed these algorithms to his students at the United States Naval Academy, they asked whether they themselves could dance for extra credit. He said yes. So here are the U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen dancing the InsertionSort algorithm:

(Thanks, Gavin.)

Area Matters

area matters 1

If you know the vertices of a polygon, here’s an interesting way to find its area:

  1. Arrange the vertices in a vertical list, repeating the first vertex at the end (see below).
  2. Multiply diagonally downward both ways as shown.
  3. Add the products on each side.
  4. Find the difference of these sums.
  5. Halve that difference to get the area.

area matters 2

This works for any polygon, no matter the number of points, so long as it doesn’t intersect itself. It’s a slight restatement of the shoelace formula.

(Thanks, Derek, Dan, and Kyle.)

Fortuitous Numbers

In American usage, 84,672 is said EIGHTY FOUR THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED SEVENTY TWO. Count the letters in each of those words, multiply the counts, and you get 6 × 4 × 8 × 3 × 7 × 7 × 3 = 84,672.

Brandeis University mathematician Michael Kleber calls such a number fortuitous. The next few are 1,852,200, 829,785,600, 20,910,597,120, and 92,215,733,299,200.

If you normally say “and” after “hundred” when speaking number names, then the first few fortuitous numbers are 333,396,000 (THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTY THREE MILLION, THREE HUNDRED AND NINETY SIX THOUSAND), 23,337,720,000, 19,516,557,312,000, 56,458,612,224,000, and 98,802,571,392,000.

And 54 works in both French and Russian.

(Michael Kleber, “Four, Twenty-Four, … ?,” Mathematical Intelligencer 24:2 [March 2002], 13-14.)

A Keypad Oddity

A.F. Bainbridge of British Aerospace noticed this curiosity in 1991. On a calculator keypad like this:

1 2 3
4 5 6
7 8 9

… choose two three-digit numbers (say, 435 and 667) and multiply them (290145). Now use symmetrical paths on the keyboard to find two “complementary” numbers (that is, symmetrical across the center, here 675 and 443) and multiply those (299025).

The difference between these two products (299025 – 290145 = 8880) will always be evenly divisible by 37.

(A.F. Bainbridge and P.A. Binding, “Symmetrical Paths on a Calculator,” Mathematical Gazette 75:474 [December 1991], 399-401.)

Finding the Way

Kohta Suzuno of Japan’s Meiji University has devised a way to solve mazes using the Marangoni effect: Fill the maze with milk, place an acidic hydrogel block at the exit, and introduce dye and a soap at the entrance. The pH change alters the surface tension and drives the dye toward the block. “In a typical experiment, the shortest path can be found and visualized within ~10s.” Suzuno has even used this technique to find the shortest distance between two points in Budapest, using a maze modeled on a street map.

(Kohta Suzuno et al., “Marangoni Flow Driven Maze Solving,” in A. Adamatzky, ed., Advances in Unconventional Computing, Vol. 23, 2017.)