Here’s a puzzle for you: You have 12 weights, 11 of which weigh the same amount and 1 of which is different. Luckily you also have a balance, but you’re only allowed to use it three times. Can you figure out which weight is the different weight?

You certainly can! I won’t tell you how, but you can figure it out for yourself while playing this interactive weight game. This puzzle is tricky, but definitely fun. If one weight puzzle isn’t enough for you, you’re in luck– there are many, many variations! Check out this site to try a similar puzzle with nine weights, ten weights, and 27 weights.

My solution to the Circle Pack 2 challenge. Can you do it in only 5 moves?

Next up, if you like drawing challenges, this is the game for you. Check out this crazy geometry game, in which you have to draw different shapes (like perfect equilateral triangles, squares, pentagons, and groups of circles of particular sizes) using only circles and straight lines! Here’s my solution to one of the challenges, the Circle Pack 2. See the two smaller circles inside of the larger middle circle? That’s what I wanted to draw– but I had to make all of those other circles and lines to get there! I did the Circle Pack 2 challenge in 8 moves, but apparently there’s a way to do it in only 5…

Finally, it’s pumpkin season again! Every year I scour the internet for new math-y ways to carve pumpkins. We’re all in luck this year– because I found great instructions for how to carve pumpkin polyhedra from Math Craft! Check out this site to learn how to carve all the basics– tetrahedra, cubes, octahedra, dodecahedra, and (my favorite) icosahedra– and a bonus polyhedron, the truncated icosahedron (also know as the soccer ball).

Pumpkin Platonic polyhedra!

Don’t forget to make pi with the leftover pumpkin! Oh, and, bon appetit!

I’ve been really into squares lately. Maybe it’s because I recently ran across a new puzzle involving squares– something called Mrs. Perkin’s quilt.

69 by 69 Mrs. Perkin’s quilt.

The original version of the puzzle was published way back in 1907, and it went like this: “For Christmas, Mrs. Potipher Perkins received a very pretty patchwork quilt constructed of 169 square pieces of silk material. The puzzle is to find the smallest number of square portions of which the quilt could be composed and show how they might be joined together. Or, to put it the reverse way, divide the quilt into as few square portions as possible by merely cutting the stitches.”

18 by 18 Mrs. Perkin’s quilt

Said in another way, if you have a 13 by 13 square, how can you divide it up into the smallest number of smaller squares? Don’t worry, you get to solve it yourself– I’m not including a picture of the solution to that version of the puzzle because there are so many beautiful pictures of solutions to the puzzle when you start with larger and smaller squares. Some are definitely more interesting than others. If you want to start simple, try the 4 by 4 version. I particularly like the look of the solution to the 18 by 18 version.

152 by 152 Mrs. Perkin’s quilt

Maybe you’re wondering where I got all these great pictures of Mrs. Perkin’s quits. And– wait a second– is that the solution to the 152 by 152 version? It sure is– and I got it from one of my favorite math websites, the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. The site is full of awesome visualizations of all kinds of things, from math problems to scans of the human brain. The Mrs. Perkin’s quilts demonstration solves the puzzle for up to a 1,098 by 1,098 square!

Next up, we here at Math Munch are big fans of unusual calculators. Marble calculators, domino calculators… what will we turn up next? Well, here for your strange calculator enjoyment is a water calculator! Check out this video to see how it works:

I might not want to rely on this calculator to do my homework, but it certainly is interesting!

Finally, meet Snap the Turtle! This cute little guy is here to teach you how to make beautiful math art stars using computer programming.

On the website Tynker, Snap can show you how to design a program to make intricate line drawings– and learn something about computer programming at the same time. Tynker’s goal is to teach kids to be programming “literate.” Combine computer programming with a little math and art (and a turtle)– what could be better?

I hope something grabbed your interest this week! Bon appetit!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch! And, if you’re a student or teacher, welcome to a new school year!

One of the most exciting events in the world of math happened this August– the awarding of the Fields Medal! This award honors young mathematicians who have already done awesome mathematical work and who show great promise for the future. It also only happens every four years, at the beginning of an important math conference called the International Congress of Mathematicians, so it’s a very special occasion when it does!

Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman ever to win a Fields Medal

This year’s award was even more special than usual, though. Not only were there four winners (more than the usual two or three), but one of the winners was a woman!

Now, if you’re like me, you probably heard about the Fields Medal and thought, “There’s no way I’ll understand the math that these Field Medalists do.” But this couldn’t be more wrong! Thanks to these great articles from Quanta Magazine, you can learn a lot about the super-interesting math that the Fields Medalists study– and why they study it.

Manjul Bhargava

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that each Fields Medalist has non-math interests that inspire their mathematical work. Take Manjul, for instance. When he was a kid, his grandfather introduced him to Sanskrit poetry. He was fascinated by the patterns in the rhythms of the poems, and the number patterns that he found inspired him to study the mathematics of number patterns– number theory!

But, don’t just take my word for it– you can read all about Manjul and the others in these great articles! And did I mention that they come with videos about each mathematician?

Want to read more about this year’s Fields Medallists? Check out Alex Bellos’s article in The Guardian. Which brings me to…

… What’s your favorite number? Is it 7? If it is, then you’re in good company! Alex polled more than 30,000 people about their favorite number, and the most popular was 7. But why? What’s so special about 7? Here’s why Alex thinks 7 is such a favorite:

Why do you like your favorite number? People gave Alex all kinds of different reasons. One woman said about 3, her favorite number, “3 wishes. On the count of 3. 3 little pigs… great triumvirates!” Alex made these questions the topic of the first chapter of his new book, The Grapes of Math. (Get the reference?) In this book, Alex shares many curious ways that math appears in our world. Did you know that a weird pattern in numbers can be used to catch criminals? Or that the Game of Life, a simple computer program, shares surprisingly many characteristics with real life? These are only a few of the hundreds of topics Alex covers in his book. Whether you’re a math whiz or a newbie, you’ll learn something new on every page.

Alex currently writes about math for The Guardian in a blog called, “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland”– but he also loves and writes about soccer (or futbol, as it’s called in his native Brazil)! He even wrote a few articles for his blog about math and soccer.

Do you have any questions for Alex? (About math, soccer, or their intersection?) Write them here and you might find them featured in our interview with Alex!

Good writing about math is hard to find. If you’ve ever picked up a standard math textbook, you’ll know what I mean. But reading something fascinating, that grabs your interest from the first page and leads you through the most complex ideas like they’re as natural as anything you’ve observed, is a great way to learn. The Grapes of Math and “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland” do just that. Give them a go!

I recently ran across a very ancient puzzle with a very modern solution– and a very funny name. It’s called the Stomachion, and it looks like this:

So, what do you do? The puzzle is made up of these fourteen pieces carved out of a 12 by 12 square– and the challenge is to make as many different squares as possible using all of the pieces. No one is totally sure who invented the Stomachion puzzle, but it’s definite that Archimedes, one of the most famous Ancient Greek mathematicians, had a lot of fun working on it.

Sometimes Archimedes used the Stomachion pieces to make fun shapes, like elephants and flying birds. (If you think that sounds like fun, check out this page of Stomachion critters to try making and this lesson about the Stomachion puzzle from NCTM.) But his favorite thing to do with the Stomachion pieces was to arrange them into squares!

It’s clear that you can arrange the Stomachion pieces into a square in at least one way– because that’s how they start before you cut them out. But is there another way to do it? And, if there’s a second way, is there a third? How about a fourth? Because Archimedes was wondering about how many ways there are to make a square with Stomachion pieces, some mathematicians give him credit for being an inventor of combinatorics, the branch of math that studies counting things.

It turns out that there are many, many ways to make squares (the picture above shows all of them– click on it for greater detail)– and Archimedes didn’t find them all. But someone else did, over 2,000 years later! He used a computer to solve the problem– something Archimedes could never have done– but mathematician Bill Cutler found that there are 536 ways to make a square with Stomachion pieces! That’s a lot! If you’ve tried to make squares with the pieces, you might be particularly surprised– it’s pretty tricky to arrange them into one unique square, let alone 536. This finding was such a big deal that it made it into the New York Times. (Though you may notice that the number reported in the article is different– that’s how many ways there are to make a square if you include all of the solutions that are symmetrically the same.)

Other mathematicians have worked on finding the number of ways to arrange the Stomachion pieces into other shapes– such as triangles and diamonds. Given that it took until 2003 for someone to find the solution for squares, there are many, many open questions about the Stomachion puzzle just waiting to be solved! Who knows– if you play with the Stomachion long enough, maybe you’ll discover something new!

Next up, the mathematicians over at Numberphile have worked out a solution to a problem that plagued me a few weeks ago while I was camping– choosing the best outdoor toilet to use without checking all of them for grossness first. Is there a way to ensure that you won’t end up using the most disgusting toilet without having to look in every single one of them? Turns out there is! Watch this video to learn how:

Finally, a little blast from the past. Almost two years ago I share with you a video of something really awesome– a computer made entirely out of dominoes! Well, this year, some students and I finally got the chance to make one of our own! It very challenging and completely exhausting, but well worth the effort. Our domino computer recently made its debut on the mathematical internet, so I thought I’d share it with all of you! Enjoy!

Modular origami stars have taken the school I teach in by storm in recent months! We love making them so much that I thought I’d share some instructional videos with you. My personal favorite is this transforming eight-pointed star. It slides between a disk with a hole the middle (great for throwing) and a gorgeous, pinwheel-like eight-pointed star. Here’s how you make one:

Another favorite is this lovely sixteen-pointed star. You can make it larger or smaller by adding or removing pieces. It’s quite impressive when completed and not that hard to make. Give it a try:

Continuing on our theme of stars, check out these beautiful star tessellations. They come from a site made by Jim McNeil featuring oh-so-many things you can do with polygons and polyhedra. On this page, Jim tells you all about tessellations, focusing on a category of tessellations called star and retrograde tessellations.

Take, for example, this beautiful star tessellation that he calls the Type 3. Jim describes how one way to make this tessellation is to replace the dodecagons in a tessellation called the 12.12.3 tessellation (shown to the left) with twelve-pointed stars. He uses the 12/5 star, which is made by connecting every fifth dot in a ring of twelve dots. Another way to make this tessellation is in the way shown above. In this tessellation, four polygons are arranged around a single point– a 12/5 star, followed by a dodecagon, followed by a 12/7 star (how is this different from a 12/5 star?), and, finally, a 12/11-gon– which is exactly the same as a dodecagon, just drawn in a different way.

I think it’s interesting that the same pattern can be constructed in different ways, and that allowing for cool shapes like stars and different ways of attaching them can open up crazy new worlds of tessellations! Maybe you’ll want to try drawing some star tessellations of your own after seeing some of these.

Finally, to finish off our week of everything stars, check out the star I made with this double pendulum simulator. What’s so cool about the double pendulum? It’s a pendulum– a weight attached to a string suspended from a point– with a second weight hung off the bottom of the first. Sounds simple, right? Well, the double pendulum actually traces a chaotic path for most sizes of the weights, lengths of the strings, and angles at which you drop them. This means that very small changes in the initial conditions cause enormous changes in the path of the pendulum, and that the path of the pendulum is not a predictable pattern.

Using the simulator, you can set the values of the weights, lengths, and angles and watch the path traced on the screen. If you select “star” under the geometric settings, the simulator will set the parameters so that the pendulum traces this beautiful star pattern. Watch what happens if you wiggle the settings just a little bit from the star parameters– you’ll hardly recognize the path. Chaos at work!

Why all the excitement about Truchet? And what (or who?) is Truchet, anyway? Great questions, both. I only recently learned about the fascinating world of Truchet and his tiles. I first got hooked on the beautiful patterns you can make with Truchet tiles. So, read on– and maybe you’ll get hooked, too.

This beautiful pattern is made out of Truchet tiles, deceptively simple square pieces that can fit together to make patterns with enormous complexity. There’s really just one Truchet tile– the square with a triangular half of it colored it– but it can be oriented in four ways.

There are ten different ways to put two next to each other– or, at least, that’s what Sebastien Truchet discovered when he started working with these tiles way back in the late 1600s. Truchet was a scientist and inventor, but he also dabbled in math. He became interested in the ways of combining these simple tiles while looking at decorations made from ceramic tiles. He started trying to figure out all the different patterns he could make– first with two tiles, then with sequences of them– and soon realized that he was the first person to study this! So, he wrote a little book about his discoveries, which he called “Memoir sur les Combinasions.”

Translations of this book are hard to come by (unless you read French), but I found a great site that shows all the images Truchet included in the book. One of my favorites is this chart, in which Truchet shows all the possible ways of combining two tiles. Maybe you’ve noticed that there are way more than ten different combinations on this chart. That’s because this chart is just Truchet brainstorming– drawing everything he can think of. In a later chart, Truchet groups pairs of tiles that he thinks are the same in some really basic way.

Can you see how Truchet grouped the tiles in this chart? Each row corresponds to one of his ten different tiles. Do his categories make sense?

Want to try making a beautiful Truchet tiling of your own? You could just start drawing (maybe graph paper would be useful). Or you could try this great Scratch program! You can have it make a random Truchet tiling. Or, you can use a four-digit code, using only the digits 1 through 4, to tell it what pattern to make. Each digit corresponds to a tile with a dark triangle in a different corner. I had fun thinking of a code and then trying to guess what pattern the program would make. Or, you could try to figure out the code for one of your favorite of Truchet’s patterns!

In recent years, mathematicians have starting experimenting with Truchet tiles in new ways. The mathematician and scientist Cyril Stanley Smith was one of the first to do this. He began to introduce curved lines into the tiles and to place them randomly, instead of according to a pattern. These changes make some really interesting results– like this maze made from Truchet-like tiles.

Want to make your own maze from tiles inspired by Truchet? Check out this site with instructions for how to make Truchet mazes! You can use a computer or a more low-tech tool to create an intricate, unique maze.

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch– and happy Pi Day!

What does pi look like? The first 10,000 digits of pi, each digit 0 through 9 assigned a different color.

You probably know some pretty cool things about the number pi. Perhaps you know that pi has quite a lot to do with circles. Maybe you know that the decimal expansion for pi goes on and on, forever and ever, without repeating. Maybe you know that it’s very likely that any string of numbers– your birthday, phone number, all the birthdays of everyone you know listed in a row, followed by all their phone numbers, ANYTHING– can be found in the decimal expansion of pi.

But did you know that pi can be approximated by dropping needles on a piece of paper? Well, it can! If you drop a needle again and again on a lined piece of paper, and the needle is the same length as the distance between the lines, the probably that the needle lands on a line is two divided by pi. This experiment is called Buffon’s needle, after the French naturalist Buffon.

If the angle the needle makes with the lines is in the gray area (like the red needle’s angle is), it will cross the line. If the angle isn’t, it won’t. The possible angles trace out a circle. The closer the center of the needle (or center of the circle) is to the line, the larger the gray area– and the higher the probability of the needle hitting the line.

This may seem strange to you– but if you think about how the needle hitting a line has a lot to do with the distance between the middle of the needle and the nearest line and the angle it makes with the lines, maybe you’ll start to think about circles… and then you’ll get a clue about the connection between this experiment and pi. Working out this probability exactly requires some pretty advanced mathematics. (Feeling ambitious? Read about the calculation here.) But, you can get some great experimental results using this Buffon’s needle applet.

Click on the picture to try the applet.

I had the applet drop 500 needles. Then, the applet used the fact that the probability of the needle hitting a line should be two divided by pi and the probability it measured to calculate an approximation for pi. It got… well, you can see in the picture. Pretty close, right?

Here’s another thing you might not know: pi is a transcendental number. Sounds trippy– but, like some other famous numbers with letter names, like e, pi can never be the solution to an algebraic equation involving whole numbers. That means that no matter what equation you give me– no matter how large the exponent, how many negatives you toss in, how many times you multiply or divide by a whole number– pi will never, ever be a solution. Maybe this doesn’t sound amazing to you. If not, check out this video from Numberphile about transcendental numbers. Numbers like pi and e don’t do mathematical things we’re used to numbers doing… and it’s pretty weird.

Still curious about transcendental numbers? Here’s a page listing the fifteen most famous transcendental numbers. My favorite? Definitely the fifth, Liouville’s number, which has a 1 in each consecutive factorial numbered place.

Finally, maybe you don’t like pi. Maybe you like cookies instead. Lucky for you, you can do many mathematical things with cookies, too. Like make cookie tessellations! This mathematical artist and baker made cookie cutters in the shapes of tiles from Escher tessellations and used them to make mathematical cookie puzzles. Beautiful, and certainly delicious.

If you happen to have a 3D printer, you can make your own Escher cookie cutters. Here’s a link to print out the lizard cutter. If you don’t have a 3D printer, you could try printing out a 2D image of an Escher tessellation and tracing a tile onto a sheet of paper. Cut out the tile, roll out your dough, and slice around the outside of the tile to make your cookies. If you do it right, you shouldn’t have to waste any dough…

Here’s hoping you eat some pi or cookies on pi day! Bon appetit!