Tag Archives: Alex Bellos

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

Snooker Puzzle

This is a nice puzzle from Alex Bellos’s Monday Puzzle column in the Guardian.

“My cultural highlight of recent weeks has been the brilliant BBC documentary Gods of Snooker, about the time in the 1980s when the sport was a national obsession. Today’s puzzle describes a shot to malfunction the Romford Robot … and put the Whirlwind … in a spin.

Baize theorem

A square snooker table has three corner pockets, as [shown]. A ball is placed at the remaining corner (bottom left). Show that there is no way you can hit the ball so that it returns to its starting position.

The arrows represent one possible shot and how it would rebound around the table.

The table is a mathematical one, which means friction, damping, spin and napping do not exist. In other words, when the ball is hit, it moves in a straight line. The ball changes direction when it bounces off a cushion, with the outgoing angle equal to the incoming angle. The ball and the pockets are infinitely small (i.e. are points), and the ball does not lose momentum, so that its path can include any number of cushion bounces.

Thanks to Dr Pierre Chardaire, associate professor of computing science at the University of East Anglia, who devised today’s puzzle.”

See the Snooker Puzzle

The Squirrel Puzzle

For a change of pace, here is an early puzzle from Alex Bellos in The Guardian.

“Happy New Year guzzlers!  Today’s first problem concerns squirrels. Have a nibble—it’s not too hard a nut to crack.

The Squirrel King has buried the Golden Acorn beneath one of the squares in this 6x6 grid. Three squirrels—Black, Grey and Red—are each standing on a square in the grid, as illustrated.

(Note: for the purposes of today, squirrels can speak, hear, read, count and are perfect logicians. They can also move in any direction horizontally and vertically, not just the direction these cartoons are facing. They all can see where each other is standing, and the cells in the grid are to be considered squares.)

The Squirrel King hands each squirrel a card, on which a number is written. The squirrels can read only the number on their own card. The King tells them: ‘Each card has a different number on it, and your card tells you the number of steps you are from the square with the Golden Acorn. Moving one square horizontally or vertically along the grid counts as a single step.’ (So if the acorn was under Black, Black’s card would say 0, Grey’s would say 4, and Red’s 5. Also, the number of steps given means the shortest possible number of steps from each squirrel to the acorn.)

The King asks them: ‘Do you know the square where the Golden Acorn is buried?’ They all reply ‘no!’ at once.

Red then says: ‘Now I know!’

Where is the Golden Acorn buried? …”

See the Squirrel Puzzle

Three Counting Puzzles

Here are three counting puzzles from Alex Bellos’s book, Can You Solve My Problems?  Bellos recalls the famous legend of the young Gauss in the 19th century who summed up the whole numbers from 1 to 100 by finding a pattern that would simplify the work.  Bellos also mentioned that Alcuin some thousand years earlier had discovered a similar, but different, pattern to sum up the numbers.  In presenting these three problems he said, “The lesson … is this: If you’re asked to add up a whole bunch of numbers, don’t undertake the challenge literally.  Look for the pattern and use it to your advantage.”

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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.