Category Archives: Math Inquiries

Serious Series

The following problem comes from a 1961 exam set collected by Ed Barbeau of the University of Toronto.  The discontinued exams (by 2003) were for 5th year Ontario high school students seeking entrance and scholarships for the second year at a university.

“If sn denotes the sum of the first n natural numbers, find the sum of the infinite series


Unfortunately, the “Grade XIII” exam problem sets were not provided with answers, so I have no confirmation for my result.  There may be a cunning way to manipulate the series to get a solution, but I could not see it off-hand.  So I employed my tried and true power series approach to get my answer.  It turned out to be power series manipulations on steroids, so there must be a simpler solution that does not use calculus.  I assume the exams were timed exams, so I am not sure how a harried student could come up with a quick solution.  I would appreciate any insights into this.

See Serious Series

Number of the Beast

If you will pardon the pun, this is a diabolical problem from the collection Five Hundred Mathematical Challenges.

Problem 5. Calculate the sum


It has a non-calculus solution, but that involves a bunch of manipulations that were not that evident to me, or at least I doubt if I could have come up with them. I was able to reframe the problem using one of my favorite approaches, power series (or polynomials). The calculations are a bit hairy in any case, but I was impressed that my method worked at all.

See the Number of the Beast

Pairwise Products

This 2005 four-star problem from Colin Hughes at Maths Challenge is also a bit challenging.

For any set of real numbers, R = {x, y, z}, let sum of pairwise products,
________________S = xy + xz + yz.
Given that x + y + z = 1, prove that S ≤ 1/3.”

Again, I took a different approach from Maths Challenge, whose solution began with an unexplained premise.

See the Pairwise Products

Flipping Parabolas

This is a stimulating problem from the UKMT Senior Math Challenge for 2017. The additional problem “for investigation” is particularly challenging. (I have edited the problem slightly for clarity.)

“The parabola with equation y = x² is reflected about the line with equation y = x + 2. Which of the following is the equation of the reflected parabola?

A_x = y² + 4y + 2_____B_x = y² + 4y – 2_____C_x = y² – 4y + 2
D_x = y² – 4y – 2_____E_x = y² + 2

For investigation: Find the coordinates of the point that is obtained when the point with coordinates (x, y) is reflected about the line with equation y = mx + b.”

See Flipping Parabolas.

Fibonacci, Chickens, and Proportions

There is the famous chicken and the egg problem: If a chicken and a half can lay an egg and a half in a day and a half, how many eggs can three chickens lay in three days? Fibonacci 800 years ago in his book Liber Abaci (1202 AD) did not have exactly this problem (as far as I could find), but he posed its equivalent. And most likely the problem came even earlier from the Arabs. So we can essentially claim Fibonacci (or the Arabs) as the father of the chicken and egg problem. Here are three of Fibonacci’s actual problems:

  1. “Five horses eat 6 sestari of barley in 9 days; it is sought by the same rule how many days will it take ten horses to eat 16 sestari.
  2. A certain king sent indeed 30 men to plant trees in a certain plantation where they planted 1000 trees in 9 days, and it is sought how many days it will take for 36 men to plant 4400 trees.
  3. Five men eat 4 modia of corn in one month, namely in 30 days. Whence another 7 men seek to know by the same rule how many modia will suffice for the same 30 days.”

By modern standards these problems all involve simple arithmetic to solve. But there are actually some subtleties in mapping the mathematical model to the situation, in which fractions, proportions, ratios, and “direct variation” get swirled into the mix—naturally causing some confusion.

See Fibonacci, Chickens, and Proportions