Category Archives: Math Inquiries

Minimum Path Via Circle

James Tanton provides another imaginative problem on Twitter.

“I am at point A and want to walk to point B via some point, any point, P on the circle. What point P should I choose so that my journey A → P → B is as short as possible?”

Hint: I got ideas for a solution from two of my posts, “Square Root Minimum” and “Maximum Product”.

See Minimum Path Via Circle

A Nice Factorial Sum

This is another infinite series from Presh Talwalkar, but with a twist.

“This problem is adapted from one given in an annual national math competition exam in France. Evaluate the infinite series:

1/2! + 2/3! + 3/4! + …”

The twist is that Talwalkar provides three solutions, illustrating three different techniques that I in fact have used before in series and sequence problems.  But this time I actually found a simpler solution that avoids all these.  You also need to remember what a factorial is: n! =n(n – 1)(n – 2)…3·2·1.

See a Nice Factorial Sum

Point of Intersection Problem

I came across an interesting problem in the MathsJam Shout for February 2022.

(“MathsJam is a monthly opportunity for like-minded self-confessed maths enthusiasts to get together in a pub and share stuff they like.  Puzzles, games, problems, or just anything they think is cool or interesting.  Monthly MathsJam nights happen in over 70 locations around the world, on the second-to-last Tuesday of each month.  To find your nearest MathsJam, visit the website at www.mathsjam.com.”)

“Given two lines Ax + By + C = 0 and ax + by + c = 0, is there a simple link between the vectors (A, B, C), (a, b, c), and the point where the lines cross?”

The answer, of course, is yes, but the question is somewhat open-ended and I was not able to track down any answer given.

See the Point of Intersection Problem

Another Christmas Tree Puzzle

This is a belated Christmas puzzle from December 2019 MathsMonday.

“A Christmas tree is made by stacking successively smaller cones. The largest cone has a base of radius 1 unit and a height of 2 units. Each smaller cone has a radius 3/4 of the previous cone and a height 3/4 of the previous cone. Its base overlaps the previous cone, sitting at a height 3/4 of the way up the previous cone.

What are the dimensions of the smallest cone, by volume, that will contain the whole tree for any number of cones?”

Recall that the volume of a cone is π r2 h/3.

See Another Christmas Tree Puzzle

Existence Proofs II

Futility Closet has another example of an existence proof like their previous one taken from Peter Winkler’s 2021 Mathematical Puzzles (see my post “Existence Proofs”):

“Four bugs live on the four vertices of a regular tetrahedron. One day each bug decides to go for a little walk on the tetrahedron’s surface. After the walk, two of the bugs have returned to their homes, but the other two find that they have switched vertices. Prove that there was some moment when all four bugs lay on the same plane.”

See Existence Proofs II

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”

Polynomial Division Problem

Here is a challenging problem from the Polish Mathematical Olympiads published in 1960.

“22. Prove that the polynomial

x44 + x33 + x22 + x11 + 1

is divisible by the polynomial

x4 + x3 + x2 + x + 1.”

See the Polynomial Division Problem

(Update 8/23/2021)  The idea expressed in this post that mathematicians are “lazy” and seek short-cuts to solving questions and problems, as I did in this one, was recently the subject of a Numberphile post by Marcus du Sautoy: “Mathematics is all about SHORTCUTS“.

Bottema’s Theorem

This seemingly magical result from Futility Closet defies proof at first.  Go to the Wolfram demo by Jay Warendorff and then …

“Grab point B above and drag it to a new location. Surprisingly, M, the midpoint of RS, doesn’t move.

This works for any triangle — draw squares on two of its sides, note their common vertex, and draw a line that connects the vertices of the respective squares that lie opposite that point. Now changing the location of the common vertex does not change the location of the midpoint of the line.

It was discovered by Dutch mathematician Oene Bottema.”

As we shall see, Bottema’s Theorem has shown up in other guises as well.

See Bottema’s Theorem