Author Archives: Jim Stevenson

Greek-Indian Connection — Alexander’s Legacy

In my post, “Causality, Chance, and Connections,” I have already alluded to one of the biggest mysterious connections that has bedeviled me over the years, namely, the brief suggestion I found in an art book over 50 years ago in the mid-1960s that the human images of Buddha that appeared in statues some four to five hundred years after his life came from the influence of Greek settlers left by Alexander the Great around 300 BC in the Gandhara region of then northwest India (now Pakistan).

I spent decades trying to verify this story.  For some time I have wanted to write an article about what I found.  But it was such a vast and nebulous tale, that I was reluctant to hazard my limited view of the matter.  Nevertheless, I finally could not resist, so here is my sketch of the great Greek Buddha mystery.

See the Greek-Indian Connection

MoMath Mazes

I found these mazes on Twitter and thought they might make a relaxing puzzle interlude.  They come from photographs of the street in front of the Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York.   The idea is to traverse the mazes from the Start to the Goal making only right turns.  It was difficult working out the pattern of the green maze, especially the upper right corner.

See the MoMath Mazes

Puzzles and Problems: MoMath

A Question of Time

This turns out to be an unambiguous, doable problem from the 19th century puzzle master Sam Loyd.  It is based on an observation about jewelers’ signs of the times.  I thought I would include Loyd’s narrative in its entirety.

“A CURIOUS paragraph has been going the rounds of the press which attempts to explain why the signs of the big watches in front of jewelry stores are always alike. They are painted upon the dial, apparently in a haphazard sort of a way, and yet they invariably indicate a certain number of minutes past eight. It cannot be attributable to chance, for it would tax one’s credulity to believe that such a coincidence could occur all over the civilized world.

There is no accepted rule or agreement established with the jewelers or sign painters, for careful inquiry proves that few of them are aware of the fact or ever noticed that any two are alike, it would be a marvelous case of unconscious imitation if it is looked upon as a mere custom, accidentally following a pattern set by the originator of the device of the sign of a big watch. In London, where they take pride in such things, I saw several big watches, looking as if they had hung in front of the stores for countless centuries, all indicating the same mysterious time, accompanied by the announcement that the firms were established a couple of hundred years ago. I do not doubt for a moment that some such similar sign can be found at Nuremberg, where the watch originated during the Fifteenth Century.

The discussion seems to have brought out a recognition of the fact that from an artistic point of view, symmetry requires that the hands should be evenly balanced, as it were, on both sides of the face of the watch.

If they are raised too much there is a certain “exasperating, declamatory effect,” which is not altogether pleasing.

The time would be incorrect if the hands pointed at 9 and 3, and at other points would be too low, so, as a matter of fact, and from an artistic point of view, the position is well selected and is one of the points which, with the aid of a watch, can be shown to be possible. It is a fact however, that the mere puzzle of telling what time the watch indicates, has been held up to public gaze for all these centuries without being thought of or solved?

Take your watch and set it to the time indicated, with the hands at equal distances from the six hour, which shows it to he a possible position, and then tell what time of the day it is! …”

See A Question of Time

Existence Proofs

Here is a seemingly simple problem from Futility Closet.

“A quickie from Peter Winkler’s Mathematical Puzzles, 2021: Can West Virginia be inscribed in a square? That is, is it possible to draw some square each of whose four sides is tangent to this shape?”

Technically we might rephrase this as, can we inscribe a flat map of West Virginia in a square, since the boundary of most states is probably not differentiable everywhere, that is, has a tangent everywhere.

But the real significance of the problem is that it is an example of an “existence proof”, which in mathematics refers to a proof that asserts the existence of a solution to a problem, but does not (or cannot) produce the solution itself.  These proofs are second in delight only to the “impossible proofs” which prove that something is impossible, such as trisecting an angle solely with ruler and compass.

Here is another classic example (whose origin I don’t recall).  Consider the temperatures of the earth around the equator.  At any given instant of time there must be at least two antipodal points that have the same temperature.  (Antipodal points are the opposite ends of a diameter through the center of the earth.)

See Existence Proofs (revised)

(Update 10/2/2021) I fixed a minor typo: “tail” should have been “head”

Twisting Beam Problem

Here is a slightly different kind of problem from the Polish Mathematical Olympiads.

“106. A beam of length a is suspended horizontally by its ends by means of two parallel ropes of lengths b.  We twist the beam through an angle φ about the vertical axis passing through the centre of the beam.  How far will the beam rise?”

See the Twisting Beam Problem

Numbers in New Guinea

This puzzle from Alex Bellos follows the themes in his new book, The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book, which, among other things, looks at number systems in different languages.  (See also his Numberphile video.)

“Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, which aims to raise awareness of issues concerning indigenous communities. Such as, for example, the survival of their languages. According to the Endangered Languages Project, more than 40 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of extinction.

Among the fantastic diversity of the world’s languages is a diversity in counting systems. The following puzzle concerns the number words of Ngkolmpu, a language spoken by about 100 people in New Guinea. (They live in the border area between the Indonesian province of Papua and the country of Papua New Guinea.)

Ngkolmpu-zzle

Here is a list of the first ten cube numbers (i.e. 13, 23, 33, …, 103):

1, 8, 27, 64, 125, 216, 343, 512, 729, 1000.

Below are the same ten numbers when expressed in Ngkolmpu, but listed in random order. Can you match the correct number to the correct expressions?

eser tarumpao yuow ptae eser traowo eser

eser traowo yuow

naempr

naempr ptae eser traowo eser

naempr tarumpao yuow ptae yuow traowo naempr

naempr traowo yempoka

tarumpao

yempoka tarumpao yempoka ptae naempr traowo yempoka

yuow ptae yempoka traowo tampui

yuow tarumpao yempoka ptae naempr traowo yuow

Here’s a hint: this is an arithmetical puzzle as well as a linguistic one. Ngkolmpu does not have a base ten system like English does. In other words, it doesn’t count in tens, hundreds and thousands. Beyond its different base, however, it behaves very regularly.

This puzzle originally appeared in the 2021 UK Linguistics Olympiad, a national competition for schoolchildren that aims to encourage an interest in languages. It was written by Simi Hellsten, a two-time gold medallist at the International Olympiad of Linguistics, who is currently reading maths at Oxford University.”

See Numbers in New Guinea