Cut The Knot!An interactive column using Java applets
by Alex Bogomolny
On March 29, 1879, Vanity Fair began offering its subscribers a new weekly puzzle invented by Lewis Carroll. In his own words [Carroll, pp 1275-6]:
Later in the letter, Carroll mentions that he "was told there is an American game involving a similar principle. I have never seen it ..." Whatever the truth, the game's origins faded into obscurity and the game itself long since became part of the multilingual folklore. It recently took a mathematical turn, under the name of the Ship-Dock Theorem. The name originates with a particular puzzle, that of getting from SHIP to DOCK. Here's a couple of solutions: SHIP, SLIP, SLOP, SLOT, SOOT, LOOT, LOOK, LOCK, DOCK [Stewart, p 41], and a shorter one SHIP, SHOP, CHOP, COOP, COOK, COCK, DOCK [Gale, pp 11-112].
Ship-Dock Theorem: In any solution of the problem, there must be a word at least two of whose letters are vowels.
Well, as it stated, the theorem is incorrect, for it implicitly relies on the assumption that every English word contains at least one vowel. But that is simply not true. One of the more exotic counterexamples is the word nth - of a mathematical origin - that probably managed to slip into the English vocabulary before the current epidemic of innumeracy.
Three quarters of a century after appearance of Lewis Carroll's puzzle, on March 17, 1953 [Gazalé, p 25], Frank Gray, a research scientist at Bell Labs, filed patent no. 2632058, for the Gray code encoding vacuum tube. An n-digit (binary) Gray code is a sequence of strings of n symbols "0" and "1" such that any two consecutive strings differ only in a single position. Compare this to representations of 7 (0111) and 8 (1000) in the binary positional system that differ in all 4 positions.
The Gray codes are widely used in industry to improve fidelity of telegraphic transmission, among other things. Martin Gardner [Knotted Doughnuts] popularized the application of Gray codes to puzzle solving.
Mathematicians seem to have turned puzzle solving into a gainful occupation!
Here's one puzzle. In all, there are 2n binary strings of length n. If written one after another, they will produce a concatenated string of length n2n. This string is redundant in that there are numerous repetitions. For example, using the Gray ordering for
Note that there are always enough zeros at the tail of the string to identify them with all but one zero at the front. This explains the name de Bruijn cycle. Such a circular arrangement contains exactly 2n digits.
This was a difficult puzzle. It required not only ingenuity, but also a lot of advanced knowledge.
Here is an easier one. In a triangle, mark 1/3 of each side counting from vertices in a certain order. Connect those points to the opposite vertices. Prove that the area of the middle triangle thus obtained is 1/7 that of the given triangle. This is a well-known puzzle with multiple solutions. One straightforward solution that makes use of Ceva's and VanObel's theorems generalizes to the case where we mark 1/N-th of each side. The illustration below draws on the knowledge derived from those two theorems.
(Note that for N = 2, we get what may be called a proof without words for the fact that the area of the triangle (shown in red) formed by the medians of a given triangle equals 3/4 of the area of the latter. The red triangle consists of 9 small triangles while the orginal one consists of 12. Another such pww appeared in the April's issue (1999) of Mathematics Magazine.)
Recently I ran into a puzzle [Kanga] whose relevance to the above was hard to miss. Given a triangle, extend each side by its own length in one direction following a certain order. Connect the newly obtained points. Prove that the area of the big triangle is 7 times that of the given one.
Of course, we can add 1, 2, 3, or, in general, N lengths to each side. The triangles so obtained have areas 7, 19, 37, or, in general,
Arrange all integers in a hexagonal spiral pattern. In a moment, I'll have another chance to mention a spiral. For now, let's continue talking about numbers, the sequence 1, 7, 19, 37, ..., in particular.
This sequence can be found on the horizontal ray of integers emanating leftwards from the central 1 [Kanga]. (This should come as less of a suprise to Martin Gardner's fans. In deference to Gardner, these numbers are now called "hexes" after a discussion in Scientific American and later in Time Travel.)
Following A.R. Kanga, let's call an arrangement of numbers in a geometric pattern a number mosaic. Number mosaics often have wonderful and unexpected properties making them a worthy subject for investigation. A better known mosaic is Pascal's triangle with a multitude of already discovered and other, probably still concealed, properties. The ubiquitous multiplication table is another mosaic. Move your cursor over the applet below to see how you can obtain cubes and tetrahedral numbers as sums of highlighted entries.
The names for cubes and tetrahedral numbers come from counting the number of dots arranged in natural 3D patterns. In two dimensions, we have a family of polygonal numbers, an object of fascination for the ancients and a curiosity nowadays.
Polygonal numbers got their names from arrangements of dots in regular polygons. (If you do count the dots, note that, according to a centuries old tradition, hexes are not polygonal. Hexagonal numbers are defined by the formula
For a given N, all regular N-gons are similar. The same is true for the circle - the figure approximated by regular N-gons as N grows without bound: all circles are similar.
Some shapes are self-similar in the sense that they are composed of smaller pieces each similar to the whole. This is true of an arbitrary triangle, of the Sierpinski gasket, and of many other fractal sets. But the champion of self-similarity is the logarithmic spiral, first discovered by Descartes and later studied by Jacob Bernoulli who called it spira mirabilis (a wonderful spiral.)
In polar coordinates (r, ), the logarithmic spiral is (redundantly) defined by the equation
for some constants C and a
which also represents rescaling by a factor of a0.
Bernoulli was so much impressed with the properties of the spiral that he requsted an inscription - eadem mutata resurgo (The same but changed I shall arise) - to be engraved on his tombstone.
J.Bernoulli was not the only mathematician to be concerned with his tombstone. Archimedes, one of the three greatest mathematicians of all times, requested [Dunham, pp 103-105] his friends and relations to place over his tomb a sphere inscribed in a cylinder.
Following the Proposition 34 of his On the Sphere and the Cylinder, he placed the following corollary:
A friend of mine, Bill Dettelback, has prepared a VRML 2.0 file depicting a cylinder with a sphere inside. (Viewing this file requires a plug-in module for your web browser; the plug-in can be downloaded, for example, from the plugin pages at netscape.com.) Neither Archimedes, nor Lewis Carroll could have dreamed of this technology.
Alex Bogomolny has started and still maintains a popular Web site Interactive Mathematics Miscellany and Puzzles to which he brought more than 10 years of college instruction and, at least as much, programming experience. He holds M.S. degree in Mathematics from the Moscow State University and Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He can be reached at email@example.com
Copyright © 1997-1998 Alexander Bogomolny