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.
A glutton for punishment I considered another Sam Loyd puzzle:
“Three men had a tandem and wished to go just forty miles. It could complete the journey with two passengers in one hour, but could not carry the three persons at one time. Well, one who was a good pedestrian, could walk at the rate of a mile in ten minutes; another could walk in fifteen minutes, and the other in twenty. What would be the best possible time in which all three could get to the end of their journey?”
In my search for new problems I came across this one from Martin Gardner:
“A square formation of Army cadets, 50 feet on the side, is marching forward at a constant pace [see Figure]. The company mascot, a small terrier, starts at the center of the rear rank [position A in the illustration], trots forward in a straight line to the center of the front rank [position B], then trots back again in a straight line to the center of the rear. At the instant he returns to position A, the cadets have advanced exactly 50 feet. Assuming that the dog trots at a constant speed and loses no time in turning, how many feet does he travel?”
Gardner gives a follow-up problem that is virtually impossible:
“If you solve this problem, which calls for no more than a knowledge of elementary algebra, you may wish to tackle a much more difficult version proposed by the famous puzzlist Sam Loyd. Instead of moving forward and back through the marching cadets, the mascot trots with constant speed around the outside of the square, keeping as close as possible to the square at all times. (For the problem we assume that he trots along the perimeter of the square.) As before, the formation has marched 50 feet by the time the dog returns to point A. How long is the dog’s path?”
It is a bit presumptuous to think I could reduce the universe of mathematics to some succinct essence, but ever since I first saw a column in Martin Gardner’s Scientific American Mathematical Games in 1967, I thought his example illustrated the essential feature of mathematics, or at least one of its principal attributes. And he posed it in a way that would be accessible to anyone. I especially wanted to credit Martin Gardner, since the idea resurfaced recently, uncredited, in some attractive videos by Katie Steckles and James Grime. (This reminds me of the Borges idea that “eighty years of oblivion are perhaps equal to novelty”.) See the Essence of Mathematics.
Years ago (1967) I read about an interesting solution to the three jugs problem in a book by Nathan Court which involved the idea of a billiard ball traversing a skew billiard table with distributions of the water between the jugs listed along the edges of the table. The ball bounced between solutions until it ended on the desired value. I thought it was very clever, but I really did not understand why it worked. Later I figured out an explanation, which I present here. See the Three Jugs Problem.