Category Archives: Puzzles and Problems

Geometric Puzzle Medley

This is a collection of simple but elegant puzzles, mostly from a British high school math teacher Catriona Shearer, for which I thought I would show solutions (solutions for a number of them had not been posted yet on Twitter at the time of writing).  See the Geometric Puzzle Medley.

Apparently Catriona Shearer creates these problems herself, which shows an especially gifted talent. Ben Olin, of Math with Bad Drawings fame, had an interesting interview with Ms. Shearer. The reason for the interest in her work becomes evident the more of her geometry problems one sees. They are especially elegant and minimalist, and often have simple solutions, as exemplified by the “5 Problem” or “Shear Beauty” problem illustrated here. Words, such as “beauty” and “elegance”, are often bandied about concerning various mathematical subjects, but as with any discussion of esthetics, the efforts at explanation usually fall flat. Shearer’s problems are one of the best examples of these ideas I have ever seen. If you contemplate her problems and even solve them, you will understand the meaning of these descriptions.

One of the key aspects of mathematics is often its “hidden-ness” (some would say “opacity” or “incomprehension”). Her problems appear to have insufficient information to solve. But as you look at the usually regular figures, you see that there are inherent rigid constraints that soon yield specific information that leads to a solution. This discovery is akin to the sensation of discovering Newton’s mathematical laws underlying physical reality. It is the essence of one of the joys of mathematics.

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Triangular Boundary Problem

This problem comes from the defunct Wall Street Journal Varsity Math Week collection.

“The coach then shows the team the diagram to the left and asks: What is the maximum area of a rectangle contained entirely within a triangle with sides of 9, 10 and 17?”

I changed the numbers a bit to make my calculations easier, but left the problem otherwise unchanged. When I checked the Varsity Math Week solution, I saw they used a simplifying formula that I could not remember. I also believed their solution left out a justification for the maximal area. Besides an intuitive solution for this, I also included a calculus version. See the Triangular Boundary Problem.

The Four Travelers Problem

This is another Futility Closet puzzle.

“Four straight roads cross a plain. No two are parallel, and no three meet in a point. On each road is a traveler who moves at some constant speed. If Blue and Red meet each other at their crossroad, and each of them meets Yellow and Green at their respective crossroads, will Yellow and Green necessarily meet at their own crossroad?”

I was not able to understand the solution given at first, so I tried to solve the problem on my own. Once I did, I was able to see what the Futility Closet solution was getting at. Certainly diagrams were needed to make sense of it all, and that is what I provided. See the Four Travelers Problem.

The Two Errand Boys

This is another puzzle from the Futility Closet that was originally from Henry Dudeney’s Canterbury Puzzles.

“A country baker sent off his boy with a message to the butcher in the next village, and at the same time the butcher sent his boy to the baker. One ran faster than the other, and they were seen to pass at a spot 720 yards from the baker’s shop. Each stopped ten minutes at his destination and then started on the return journey, when it was found that they passed each other at a spot 400 yards from the butcher’s. How far apart are the two tradesmen’s shops? Of course each boy went at a uniform pace throughout.”

See the Two Errand Boys.

Two Circles Puzzle

Another good source of problems is the Futility Closet site. This puzzle involved finding the line of maximal length passing through the intersection of two circles. I solved it before looking at the Futility Closet solution. Their solution of course was short, sweet, and elegant. Mine was more like the old adage of cracking a walnut with a sledge hammer. Still, I thought there were some unexplained parts to the elegant solution that justified the effort on mine. At least my solution provided an interesting, though convoluted, alternative. See the Two Circles Puzzle.

Ant Problem

This is one of Alex Bellos’s Monday Puzzles in the Guardian. I basically found the same solution as Bellos and his commenters, but wrote it up with what I thought were more explanatory graphics. The idea is that there is a bunch of ants on a stick who all walk a the same speed of 1 centimeter per second. When an ant runs into another ant, they both turn around and go the opposite direction. “So here is the puzzle: Which ant is the last to fall off the stick? And how long will it be before he or she does fall off?”  See the Ant Problem.

 

Power of 2 Problem

Virtually the very first “math” problem I got interested in involved a 7th grade homework problem in 2005 that a colleague at work said her son had been given. I ended up commenting and helping on a number of further problems, which gave me some insight into the state of current public school teaching in mathematics. It was both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. I will join the math education commentary at a later date.

The problem was not that bad: What is the largest power of 2 that divides 800! without a remainder? (where “!” means “factorial”, for example, 5! = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1). I solved it in my usual pedestrian way. I showed it to a friend of mine (an algebraist!) and he of course had a nifty approach. He showed it to a colleague of his at NSF (a physicist) and he had the niftiest solution of all! (Most humbling.) See the Power of 2 Problem.