Here is a problem from the famous (infamous?) Putnam exam, presented by Presh Talwalkar. Needless to say, I did not solve it in 30 minutes—but at least I solved it (after making a blizzard of arithmetic and trigonometric errors).
“Today’s problem is from the 1978 test, problem B1 (the easiest of the second set of problems). A convex octagon inscribed in a circle has four consecutive sides of length 3 and four consecutive sides of length 2. Find the area of the octagon.”
My solution is horribly pedestrian and fraught with numerous chances for arithmetic mistakes to derail it, which happened in spades. As I suspected, there was an elegant, “easy” solution (as demonstrated by Talwalkar)—once you thought of it! Again, this is like a Coffin Problem. See the Putnam Octagon Problem.
I was astonished that this problem was suitable for 8th graders. First of all the formula for the volume of a cone is one of the least-remembered of formulas, and I certainly never remember it. So my only viable approach was calculus, which is probably not a suitable solution for an 8th grader.
Presh Talwalkar: “This was sent to me as a competition problem for 8th graders, so it would be a challenge problem for students aged 12 to 13. When a conical bottle rests on its flat base, the water in the bottle is 8 cm from its vertex. When the same conical bottle is turned upside down, the water level is 2 cm from its base. What is the height of the bottle? (Note “conical” refers to a right circular cone as is common usage.) I at first thought this problem was impossible. But it actually can be solved. Give it a try and then watch the video for a solution.”
See the Conical Bottle Problem.
Setting aside my chagrin that the following problem was given to pre-university students, I initially found the problem to be among the daunting ones that offer little information for a solution. It also was a bit “inelegant” to my way of thinking, since it involved considering some separate cases. Still, the end result turned out to be unique and satisfying (Talwalkar’s Note 2 was essential for a unique solution, since the problem as stated was ambiguous).
“Kshitij from India sent me this problem from the 1994 India Regional Mathematics Olympiad.
‘A leaf is torn from a paperback novel. The sum of the numbers on the remaining pages is 15000. What are the page numbers on the torn leaf?’
Note 1: a ‘leaf’ means a single sheet of paper.
Note 2: the quoted problem is actual wording from the competition. But let me add an important detail: the book is numbered in the usual sequential way starting with the first page as page 1.” See the Missing Pages Puzzle.
This problem posted by Presh Talwalkar offers a variety of solutions, but I didn’t quite see my favorite approach for such problems. So I thought I would add it to the mix.
“Thanks to Nikhil Patro from India for suggesting this! What is the sum of the corner angles in a regular 5-sided star? What is a + b + c + d + e = ? Here’s a bonus problem: if the star is not regular, what is a + b + c + d + e = ?”
See Star Sum of Angles
Here is another Presh Talwalkar problem that seems unsolvable at first glance.
“Every day, a train passes a train station along a straight line track, and the train moves at a constant speed. Two friends, A and B, want to determine how long the train is. Lacking proper equipment, they devise the following method. They first synchronize their walking. Both A and B walk at the same constant speed, and each step they take is the same length. One day they line up back to back at the train station. When the front of the train reaches them, they both start walking in opposite directions. Each person stops exactly as the back of the train passes by. If person A takes 30 steps, and person B takes 45 steps, how long is the train, in terms of steps?”
See the Train Length Puzzle.
I was sifting back through some problems posed by Presh Talwalkar on his website Mind Your Decisions, when I found another 3 Jugs problem, which was amenable to the skew billiard table solution from my earlier Three Jugs Problem. Here is his statement:
“A milkman carries a full 12-liter container. He needs to deliver exactly 6 liters to a customer who only has 8-liter and a 5-liter containers. How can he do this? No milk should be wasted: the milkman needs to leave with 6 liters of milk. Can he measure all amounts of milk from 1 to 12 (whole numbers) in some container?”
I also believe I found a case where Talwalkar’s solution to the last question needs revision. See the Three Jugs Problem Redux.
This was a rather intricate puzzle from Presh Talwalkar. I found his solution a bit hard to follow, so I tried for a clearer presentation.
“A servant has a method to steal wine. He removes 3 cups from a barrel of wine and replaces it with 3 cups of water. The next day he wants more wine, so he does the same thing: he removes 3 cups from the same barrel (now with diluted wine) and replaces it with 3 cups of water. The following day he repeats this one more time, so he has drawn 3 times from the same barrel and has poured back 9 cups of water. At this point the barrel is 50% wine and 50% water. How many cups of wine were originally in the barrel? ”
See the Diluted Wine Puzzle.
These are three “Coffin” Problems posed by Nakul Dawra on his Youtube site GoldPlatedGoof. (Nakul is extraordinarily entertaining and mesmerizing.) The origin of the name is explained, but basically they are problems that have easy or even trivial solutions—once you see the solution. But just contemplating the problem, they seem impossible. The idea was to kill the chances of the pupil taking an (oral) exam with these problems. I was able to solve the first two problems (after a while), but I could not figure out the third. See the Three Coffin Problems.