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.
“Exactly four minutes after starting to run—when the take-up reel was rotating one and a half times as fast as the projecting reel—the film broke. (The hub diameter of the smaller take-up reel is 8 cm and the hub diameter of the projecting reel is 12 cm.) How many minutes of film remain to be shown?”
This feels like another problem where there is insufficient information to solve it, and that makes it fun and challenging. In fact, I was stumped for a while until I noticed something that was the key to completing the solution.
For a number of years I have collected excerpts that portray mathematical ideas in a literary or philosophical setting. I had occasion to read a few of these on the last day of some math classes I was teaching, since there was no point in introducing a new subject before the final exam.
I thought it might be interesting to present some of these excerpts now. They roughly fall into three categories: logic, infinities (Zeno’s Paradoxes, infinite regress), and permutations.
I was really trying to avoid getting pulled into more addictive geometric challenges from Catriona Shearer (since they can consume your every waking moment), but a recent post by Ben Orlin, “The Tilted Twin (and other delights),” undermined my intent. As Orlin put it, “This is a countdown of her three favorite puzzles from October 2019” and they are vintage Shearer. You should check out Olin’s website since there are “Mild hints in the text; full spoilers in the comments.” He also has some interesting links to other people’s efforts. (Olin did leave out a crucial part of #1, however, which caused me to think the problem under-determined. Checking Catriona Shearer’s Twitter I found the correct statement, which I have used here.)
I have to admit, I personally found the difficulty of these puzzles a bit more challenging than before (unless I am getting rusty) and the difficulty in the order Olin listed. Again, the solutions (I found) are simple but mostly tricky to discover. I solved the problems before looking at Olin’s or others’ solutions.
This is another problem from the Math Challenges section of the 2000 Pi in the Sky Canadian math magazine for high school students.
“Problem 4. From a point P on the circumference of a circle, a distance PT of 10 meters is laid out along the tangent. The shortest distance from T to the circle is 5 meters. A straight line is drawn through T cutting the circle at X and Y. The length of TX is 15/2 meters.
(a) Determine the radius of the circle,
(b) Determine the length of XY.”
One of the books that has stuck with me over the years is Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922, reprint 1942), not only for its incredibly clear and beautiful writing but also for its emphasis on the impact of the revolution most prominently caused by Isaac Newton, which was later subsumed under the term Scientific Revolution covering the entire 17th century. A consequence of this remarkable period was the so-called Enlightenment that followed in the 18th century and became the soil from which our nation’s founding ideas and documents sprang. Both these centuries have been further optimistically called the Age of Reason.
Our current times, awash in lies, corruption, and such terms as “alternative facts”, have been characterized as an assault on the rationalism and Enlightenment that shaped our founding. Any revisiting of these origins would seem to be a valuable endeavor to see if they still have validity. What makes Becker’s essay particularly relevant to me is the current pervasiveness of the mathematical view of reality that was launched by Newton some 300 years ago. Becker shows how this new way of thinking spread far beyond the bounds of mathematics and engendered a new “natural rights” philosophy that formed the foundation for the Declaration of Independence. Essentially the idea was that if the behavior of the natural world was based on (mathematical) laws, then so must the behavior of man be based on natural laws.
This problem from the 1987 Discover magazine’s Brain Bogglers by Michael Stueben apparently traces back to 1770, though the exact reference is not given.
“Here’s an arithmetic problem taken from a textbook published in Germany in 1770. Three people are gambling. In the first game, Player A loses to each of the others as much money as each of them had when the game started. In the next game, B loses to each of the others as much money as each had when that game began. In the third game, A and B each win from C as much money as each had at the start of that game. The players now find that each has the same sum, 24 guineas. How much money did each have when play began?”
I found this problem from the Math Challenges section of the 2002 Pi in the Sky Canadian math magazine for high school students to be truly astonishing.
“Problem 4. Inside of the square ABCD, take any point P. Prove that the perpendiculars from A on BP, from B on CP, from C on DP, and from D on AP are concurrent (i.e. they meet at one point).”
How could such a complicated arrangement produce such an amazing result? I didn’t know where to begin to try to prove it. My wandering path to discovery produced one of my most satisfying “aha!” moments.