Cut The Knot!An interactive column using Java applets
by Alex Bogomolny
As a competitive activity, last month's Squares and Circles game is not very challenging in itself. That is to say, the outcome of the game does not depend on how the game proceeds. The challenge is to come up with this realization and establish its veracity. After the secret is revealed, its verification still provides an entertaining and purposeful exercise in counting.
To resolve the enigma, suffice it to note that the parity of the number of circles remains invariant under legitimate moves. Therefore, the outcome of the game is predetermined by the original number of circles. If the number is even then the last shape will be a square regardless of the sequence of moves. If that number is odd, the last object will be a circle.
The game can be extended to a 3-shape puzzle. Let there be three kinds of shapes: squares, circles, and triangles. A move consists in selecting two objects of different shapes which are then replaced with an object of the remaining shape. The question is, Is it always possible to achieve a state with a single object? If so, what shape might it be?
The puzzle has a mass-conserving variation. In this version, the two selected objects of different shapes metamorphose each into the remaining shape. The goal here is to get a situation where only objects of the same kind remain. Is it always possible? Hint: think of quantities that remain invariant under legitimate moves. A thicker hint: in the original 3-shape game, think of invariance modulo 2. In the mass-conserving variation, modulo 3 arithmetic is more useful.
Sherman K.Stein writes [Ste]:
(I would, of course, include simple Java applets into the list of widely available and useful instruction tools.)
As in the above puzzles, invariance of some quantity is concealed in a variety of problems of quite an elementary nature. Many disguise counting exercises in a game or puzzle format. Most allow for very meaningful variations and generalizations and all contribute to the development of abstract imaging. The puzzle about Breaking a Chocolate Bar is another example.
Various invariance principles have such a fundamental role in mathematics and other sciences that the inclusion of activities similar to the described above into instruction process not only provides students with meaningful and entertaining exercises but also gives the teacher an opportunity to place the study in a very general, abstract framework relating various sciences to each other as well as science in general to real world phenomena. In this column I wish to argue in favor of inclusion of games and puzzles based on the invariance principles into an early math curricula.
Addition and multiplication tables are made to be memorized, a dull and uninspiring experience for most of us. For discussion in next month's column here is an applet that presents addition and multiplication tables in various bases. I am not suggesting to teach preschoolers how to count in various bases. (Though why not?) However, even older children enjoy non-routine tasks. Turning something as dull as a table of addition or multiplication into a research tool will definitely enliven class instruction. What properties of the basic arithmetic operations can be discerned from the observation of these tables?
Are you game?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 1997 Alexander Bogomolny