Tag Archives: primes

Prime Gaps, Mad Maths, and Castles

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

It has been a thrilling last month in the world of mathematics. Several new proofs about number patterns have been announced. Just to get a flavor for what it’s all about, here are some examples.

I can make 15 by adding together three prime numbers: 3+5+7. I can do this with 49, too: 7+11+31. Can all odd numbers be written as three prime numbers added together? The Weak Goldbach Conjecture says that they can, as long as they’re bigger than five. (video)

11 and 13 are primes that are only two apart. So are 107 and 109. Can we find infinitely many such prime pairs? That’s called the Twin Prime Conjecture. And if we can’t, are there infinitely many prime pairs that are at most, say, 100 apart? (video, with a song!)

Harald Helfgott

Harald Helfgott

Yitang "Tom" Zhang

Yitang “Tom” Zhang

People have been wondering about these questions for hundreds of years. Last month, Harald Helfgott showed that the Weak Goldbach Conjecture is true! And Yitang “Tom” Zhang showed that there are infinitely many prime pairs that are at most 70,000,000 apart! You can find lots of details about these discoveries and links to even more in this roundup by Evelyn Lamb.

What’s been particularly fabulous about Tom’s result about gaps between primes is that other mathematicians have started to work together to make it even better. Tom originally showed that there are an infinite number of prime pairs that are at most 70,000,000 apart. Not nearly as cute as being just two apart—but as has been remarked, 70,000,000 is a lot closer to two than it is to infinity! That gap of 70,000,000 has slowly been getting smaller as mathematicians have made improvements to Tom’s argument. You can see the results of their efforts on the polymath project. As of this writing, they’ve got the gap size narrowed down to 12,006—you can track the decreasing values down the page in the H column. So there are infinitely many pairs of primes that are at most 12,006 apart! What amazing progress!

Two names that you’ll see in the list of contributors to the effort are Andrew Sutherland and Scott Morrison. Andrew is a computational number theorist at MIT and Scott has done research in knot theory and is at the Australian National University. They’ve improved arguments and sharpened figures to lower the prime gap value H. They’ve contributed by doing things like using a hybrid Schinzel/greedy (or “greedy-greedy”) sieve. Well, I know what a sieve is and what a greedy algorithm is, but believe me, this is very complicated stuff that’s way over my head. Even so, I love getting to watch the way that these mathematicians bounce ideas off each other, like on this thread.

Andrew Sutherland

Andrew Sutherland

Click through to see Andrew next to an amazing Zome creation!

Andrew. Click this!

Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison

Andrew and Scott have agreed to answer some of your questions about their involvement in this research about prime gaps and their lives as mathematicians. I know I have some questions I’m curious about! You can submit your questions in the form below:

I can think of only two times in my life where I was so captivated by mathematics in the making as I am by this prime gaps adventure. Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was on the fringe of my awareness when it came out in 1993—its twentieth anniversary of his proof just happened, in fact. The result still felt very new and exciting when I read Fermat’s Enigma a couple of years later. Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture made headlines just after I moved to New York City seven years ago. I still remember reading a big article about it in the New York Times, complete with a picture of a rabbit with a grid on it.

This work on prime gaps is even more exciting to me than those, I think. Maybe it’s partly because I have more mathematical experience now, but I think it’s mostly because lots of people are helping the story to unfold and we can watch it happen!

fig110u2bNext up, I ran across a great site the other week when I was researching the idea of a “cut and slide” process. The site is called Mad Maths and the page I landed on was all about beautiful dissections of simple shapes, like circles and squares. I’ve picked out one that I find especially charming to feature here, but you might enjoy seeing them all. The site also contains all kinds of neat puzzles and problems to try out. I’m always a fan of congruent pieces problems, and these paper-folding puzzles are really tricky and original. (Or maybe, origaminal!) You’ll might especially like them if you liked Folds.

Christian's applet displaying the original four-room castle.

Christian’s applet displaying the original four-room castle.

Finally, we previously posted about Matt Parker’s great video problem about a princess hiding in a castle. Well, Christian Perfect of The Aperiodical has created an applet that will allow you to explore this problem—plus, it’ll let you build and try out other castles for the princess to hide in. Super cool! Will I ever be able to find the princess in this crazy star castle I designed?!

Crazy star castle!

My crazy star castle!

And as summer gets into full swing, the other kind of castle that’s on my mind is the sandcastle. Take a peek at these photos of geometric sandcastles by Calvin Seibert. What shapes can you find? Maybe Calvin’s creations will inspire your next beach creation!

Bon appetit!

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“Happy Birthday, Euler!”, Project Euler, and Pants

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Did you see the Google doodle on Monday?

Leonhard Euler Google doodleThis medley of Platonic solids, graphs, and imaginary numbers honors the birthday of mathematician and physicist Leonhard Euler. (His last name is pronounced “Oiler.” Confusing because the mathematician Euclid‘s name is not pronounced “Oiclid.”) Many mathematicians would say that Euler was the greatest mathematician of all time – if you look at almost any branch of mathematics, you’ll find a significant contribution made by Euler.

480px-Leonhard_Euler_2Euler was born on April 15, 1707, and he spent much of his life working as a mathematician for one of the most powerful monarchs ever, Frederick the Great of Prussia. In Euler’s time, the kings and queens of Europe had resident mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists to make their countries more prestigious.  The monarchs could be moody, so mathematicians like Euler had to be careful to keep their benefactors happy. (Which, sadly, Euler did not. After almost 20 years, Frederick the Great’s interests changed and he sent Euler away.) But, the academies helped mathematicians to work together and make wonderful discoveries.

Want to read some of Euler’s original papers? Check out the Euler Archive. Here’s a little bit of an essay called, “Discovery of a Most Extraordinary Law of Numbers, Relating to the Sum of Their Divisors,” which you can find under the subject “Number Theory”:

Mathematicians have searched so far in vain to discover some order in the progression of prime numbers, and we have reason to believe that it is a mystery which the human mind will never be able to penetrate… This situation is all the more surprising since arithmetic gives us unfailing rules, by means of which we can continue the progression of these numbers as far as we wish, without however leaving us the slightest trace of any order.

Mathematicians still find this baffling today! If you’re interested in dipping your toes into Euler’s writings, I’d suggest checking out other articles in “Number Theory,” such as “On Amicable Numbers,” or some articles in “Combinatorics and Probability,” like “Investigations on a New Type of Magic Square.”

pe_banner_lightWant to work, like Euler did, on important math problems that will stretch you to make connections and discoveries? Check out Project Euler, an online set of math and computer programming problems. You can join the site and, as you work on the problems, talk to other problem-solvers, contribute your solutions, and track your progress. The problems aren’t easy – the first one on the list is, “Find the sum of all the multiples of 3 and 5 below 1000″ – but they build on one another (and are pretty fun).


Pants made from a crocheted model of the hyperbolic plane, by Daina Taimina.

Finally, if someone asked you what a pair of pants is, you probably wouldn’t say, “a sphere with three open disks removed.” But maybe you also didn’t know that pants are important mathematical objects!

I ran into a math problem involving pants on Math Overflow (previously). Math Overflow is a site on which mathematicians can ask and answer each other’s questions. The question I’m talking about was asked by Tony Huynh. He knew it was possible to turn pants inside-out if your feet are tied together. (Check out the video below to see it done!) Tony was wondering if it’s possible to turn your pants around, so that you’re wearing them backwards, if your feet are tied together.

Is this possible? Another mathematician answered Tony’s question – but maybe you want to try it yourself before reading about the solution. Answering questions like this about transformations of surfaces with holes in them is part of a branch of mathematics called topology – which Euler is partly credited with starting. A more mathematical way of stating this problem is: is it possible to turn a torus (or donut) with a single hole in it inside-out? Here’s another video, by James Tanton, about turning things inside-out mathematically.

Bon appetit!

MMteam-240x240P.S. – The Math Munch team will be speaking next weekend, on April 27th, at TEDxNYED! We’re really excited to get to tell the story of Math Munch on the big stage. Thank you for being such enthusiastic and curious readers and allowing us to share our love of math with you. Maybe we’ll see some of you there!

Folds, GIMPS, and More Billiards

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

First up, we’ve often featured mathematical constructions made of origami. (Here are some of those posts.) Origami has a careful and peaceful feel to it—a far cry from, say, the quick reflexes often associated with video games. I mean, can you imagine an origami video game?


One of Fold’s many origami puzzles.

Well, guess what—you don’t have to, because Folds is just that! Folds is the creation of Bryce Summer, a 21-year-old game designer from California. It’s so cool. The goal of each level of its levels is simple: to take a square piece of paper and fold it into a given shape. The catch is that you’re only allowed a limited number of folds, so you have to be creative and plan ahead so that there aren’t any loose ends sticking out. As I’ve noted before, my favorite games often require a combo of visual intuition and careful thinking, and Folds certainly fits the bill. Give it a go!

Once you’re hooked, you can find out more about Bryce and how he came to make Folds in this awesome Q&A. Thanks so much, Bryce!

gimpsNext up, did you know that a new largest prime number was discovered less than a month ago? It’s very large—over 17 million digits long! (How many pages would that take to print or write out?) That makes it way larger than the previous record holder, which was “only” about 13 million digits long. Here is an article published on the GIMPS website about the new prime number and about the GIMPS project in general.

What’s GIMPS you ask? GIMPS—the Great Internet Mersenne Primes Search—is an example of what’s called “distributed computing”. Testing whether a number is prime is a simple task that any computer can do, but to check many or large numbers can take a lot of computing time. Even a supercomputer would be overwhelmed by the task all on its own, and that’s if you could even get dedicated time on it. Distributed computing is the idea that a lot of processing can be accomplished by having a lot of computers each do a small amount of work. You can even sign up to help with the project on your own computer. What other tasks might distributed computing be useful for? Searching for aliens, perhaps?

GIMPS searches only for a special kind of prime called Mersenne primes. These primes are one less than a power of two. For instance, 7 is a Mersenne prime, because it’s one less that 8, which is the third power of 2. For more on Mersenne primes, check out this video by Numberphile.

Finally, we’ve previously shared some resources about the math of billiards on Math Munch. Below you’ll find another take on bouncing paths as Michael Moschen combines the math of billiards with the art of juggling.

So lovely. For more on this theme, here’s a second video to check out.

Bon appetit!

Math Comics, A+ Click, and a Mathematical Advent Calendar

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Ada Lovelace | the first computer scientist

Ada Lovelace | the first computer scientist

Up first, are you enjoying the technology you’re reading this on? Well you can thank Ada Lovelace for that. She’s the 19th century mathematician that worked on the first computing machines with Charles Babbage and is often called “the first computer scientist.” There’s no better day to thank her than today, since it’s Ada’s 197th birthday. Justin found a great little comic dramatizing her life and work. It’s called “2D Goggles or The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.” It’s also available as a free iPad app called Lovelace & Babbage, in case you have one of those.

Ada Lovelace | The first computer scientist

Ada Lovelace hard at work in comic book form

Bertrand Russell from Logicomix

Bertrand Russell from Logicomix

I can also recommend one other math comic. It’s a graphic novel called Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth detailing the life and research of English logician Bertrand Russell, a personal hero of mine. You can buy it here.

A+ ClickUp next, I found a nice little web resource lately called A+ Click. It’s basically just a collection of math tests, but they have them for every level, and the problems are actually pretty great. Give it a try, and don’t feel like you have to stick to your grade. There’s bound to be tough ones and easier ones in every set. You can actually learn a lot by working on new kinds of problems you’ve never even heard of. You just have to figure out what the words mean, so here’s an illustrated mathematical glossary to help you out, or this maths dictionary for kids.  And here’s a sample problem I like:

Add the adjacent numbers together and write their sum in the block above them. What is the number at the top of the pyramid?

Add the adjacent numbers together and write their sum in the block above them. What is the number at the top of the pyramid?

I wonder if there was a way to predict the answer without filling in all the boxes. And what if the pyramid had 1,2,3,4,5,… all the way up to 10? Hmmmm. Any readers have any ideas? Just leave us a comment.

+plus magazineFinally, Plus Magazine’s website is full of really good math articles and things. For the holiday season, they’ve created a mathematical advent calendar. Each day, a new “door” can be opened which leads to further links and descriptions to neat math content. For example, on the 8th day we had Door #8: Women in Maths, including information about Ada Lovelace!

And here’s a little bonus video for you this week. For their recent music video, Lost Lander decided to illustrate the prime numbers as they build up. It’s quite nice, and not a bad song either.

Bon appetit!

Sandpiles, Prime Pages, and Six Dimensions of Color

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Four million grains of sand dropped onto an infinite grid. The colors represent how many grains are at each vertex. From this gallery.

We got our first snowfall of the year this past week, but my most recent mathematical find makes me think of summertime instead. The picture to the right is of a sandpile—or, more formally, an Abelian sandpile model.

If you pour a bucket of sand into a pile a little at a time, it’ll build up for a while. But if it gets too tall, an avalanche will happen and some of the sand will tumble away from the peak. You can check out an applet that models this kind of sand action here.

A mathematical sandpile formalizes this idea. First, take any graph—a small one, a medium sided one, or an infinite grid. Grains of sand will go at each vertex, but we’ll set a maximum amount that each one can contain—the number of edges that connect to the vertex. (Notice that this is four for every vertex of an infinite square grid). If too many grains end up on a given vertex, then one grain avalanches down each edge to a neighboring vertex. This might be the end of the story, but it’s possible that a chain reaction will occur—that the extra grain at a neighboring vertex might cause it to spill over, and so on. For many more technical details, you might check out this article from the AMS Notices.

This video walks through the steps of a sandpile slowly, and it shows with numbers how many grains are in each spot.

A sandpile I made with Sergei’s applet

You can make some really cool images—both still and animated—by tinkering around with sandpiles. Sergei Maslov, who works at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, has a great applet on his website where you can make sandpiles of your own.

David Perkinson, a professor at Reed College, maintains a whole website about sandpiles. It contains a gallery of sandpile images and a more advanced sandpile applet.

Hexplode is a game based on sandpiles.

I have a feeling that you might also enjoy playing the sandpile-inspired game Hexplode!

Next up: we’ve shared links about Fibonnaci numbers and prime numbers before—they’re some of our favorite numbers! Here’s an amazing fact that I just found out this week. Some Fibonnaci numbers are prime—like 3, 5, and 13—but no one knows if there are infinitely many Fibonnaci primes, or only finitely many.

A great place to find out more amazing and fun facts like this one is at The Prime Pages. It has a list of the largest known prime numbers, as well as information about the continuing search for bigger ones—and how you can help out! It also has a short list of open questions about prime numbers, including Goldbach’s conjecture.

Be sure to peek at the “Prime Curios” page. It contains intriguing facts about prime numbers both large and small. For instance, did you know that 773 is both the only three-digit iccanobiF prime and the largest three-digit unholey prime? I sure didn’t.

Last but not least, I ran across this article about how a software company has come up with a new solution for mixing colors on a computer screen by using six dimensions rather than the usual three.

Dimensions of colors, you ask?

The arithmetic of colors!

Well, there are actually several ways that computers store colors. Each of them encodes colors using three numbers. For instance, one method builds colors by giving one number each to the primary colors yellow, red, and blue. Another systems assigns a number to each of hue, saturation, and brightness. More on these systems here. In any of these systems, you can picture a given color as sitting within a three-dimensional color cube, based on its three numbers.

A color cube, based on the RGB (red, green, blue) system.

If you numerically average two colors in these systems, you don’t actually end up with the color that you’d get by mixing paint of those two colors. Now, both scientists and artists think about combining colors in two ways—combining colored lights and combining colored pigments, or paints. These are called additive and subtractive color models—more on that here. The breakthrough that the folks at the software company FiftyThree made was to assign six numbers to each color—that is, to use both additive and subtractive ideas at the same time. The six numbers assigned to a given number can be thought of as plotting a point in a six-dimensional space—or inside of a hyper-hyper-hypercube.

I think it’s amazing that using math in this creative way helps to solve a nagging artistic problem. To get a feel for why mixing colors using the usual three-coordinate system is such a problem, you might try your hand at this color matching game. For even more info about the math of color, there’s some interesting stuff on this webpage.

Bon appetit!

Factorization Dance, Vanishing, and Storm Infographics

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Think fast!  How many dots are there in this picture?

This beautiful picture comes to you from Brent Yorgey and Stephen Von Worley.  If you counted the dots, you probably didn’t count them one at a time.  (And, if you did, can you think of another way to count them?)  If you counted them like I did, you noticed that the dots are arranged in rings of five.  Then maybe you noticed that the rings of five are themselves arranged in rings of five.  And then, finally, you may have noticed that those rings are also arranged in rings of five!  How many dots is that?  5x5x5 = 125!

In this blog post, Brent describes how he wrote the computer program that creates these pictures.  The program factors numbers into primes.  Then, starting with the smallest prime factor, the program arranges dots into regular polygons of the appropriate size with dots (or polygons of dots) at the vertices of the polygon.

Here’s how that works for 90.  90’s prime factorization is 2x3x3x5:

As Brent writes in his post, this counting gets much harder to do with numbers that have large prime factors.  For example, here is 183:

From this picture, I can tell that 183 has 3 as a prime factor.  But how many times does 3 go into 183?  It isn’t immediately clear.

When Stephen saw Brent’s creation, he decided the diagrams would be even more awesome if they danced.  And so he created what he calls the Factor Conga.  If you only click on one link today, click that one.  The Factor Conga is beautiful and totally mesmerizing.

For more factor diagrams, check out this post from the Aperiodical.  There’s a link to the factor diagram by Jason Davies that we posted about over the summer.

Next up, a few months ago we posted about the puzzles of Sam Loyd – one of which was a puzzle called Get Off the Earth.  In this puzzle, the Earth spins and – impossibly – one of the men seems to vanish.  This puzzle is a type of illusion called a geometrical vanish.  In a geometrical vanish, an image is chopped into pieces and the pieces are rearranged to make a new image that takes up the same amount of space as the original, but is missing something.

Here’s a video of another geometrical vanish:

No matter the picture, these illusions are baffling for the same reason.  Rearranging the pieces of an image shouldn’t change the image’s area.  And, yet, in these illusions, that’s exactly what seems to happen.

Check out some of these other links to geometrical vanishes.  Print out your own here.  And think about this: Are these illusions math – and, if it so, how?  I came across geometrical vanishes because a friend asked if I thought the Get Off the Earth puzzle was mathematical.  He isn’t convinced.  If you have any ideas that you think can convince him either way, leave them in the comments section!

Finally, the Math Munch team’s home, New York City, (and this writer’s other home, New Jersey) was hit by a hurricane this week.  The city and surrounding areas are still recovering from the storm.  Sandy left millions of people without power and many without homes.  One way people have tried to communicate the magnitude of what happened is to make infographics of the data.  Making a good infographic requires a blend of mathematics, art, and persuasion.  Here some of the most interesting infographics about the storm that I’ve found.  Check out how they use size, placement, and color to communicate information and make comparisons.

This infographic from the New York Times shows the number of power outages in the northeast and their locations in different states. The size of the circle indicates the number of people without power. Why would the makers of this infographic choose circles? Why do you think they chose to place them on a map? What do you think of the overlapping?

This is part of an infographic from the Huffington Post that compares hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Click on the image to see the rest of the infographic. What conclusions can you draw about the hurricanes from the information?

This is a wind map of the country captured at 10:30 in the morning on October 30th, the day hurricane Sandy hit. The infographic was made by scientist-artists Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg. It shows how wind is flowing around the United States in real-time. Check out their site (click on this image) to see what the wind is doing right now in your part of the country!

To those in places affected by Hurricane Sandy, be safe.  To all our readers, bon appetit!

Demonstrations, a Number Tree, and Brainfilling Curves

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Maybe you’re headed back to school this week. (We are!) Or maybe you’ve been back for a few weeks now. Or maybe you’ve been out of school for years. No matter which one it is, we hope that this new school year will bring many new mathematical delights your way!

A website that’s worth returning to again and again is the Wolfram Demonstrations Project (WDP). Since it was founded in 2007, users of the software package Mathematica have been uploading “demonstrations” to this website—amazing illuminations of some of the gems of mathematics and the sciences.

Each demonstration is an interactive applet. Some are very simple, like one that will factor any number up to 10000 for you. Others are complex, like this one that “plots orbits of the Hopalong map.”

Some demonstrations are great for visualizing facts about math, like these:

Any Quadrilateral Can Tile

A Proof of Euler’s Formula

Cube Net or Not?

There’s also a whole category of demonstrations that can be used as MArTH—mathematical art—tools, including these:

Rotate and Fold Back

Polygons Arranged in a Circle

Turtle Fractals

With over 8000 demonstrations to explore and new ones being added all the time, you can see why the Wolfram Demonstrations Project is worth returning to again and again!

Jeffrey Ventrella’s Number Tree

Next up, check out this number tree. It was created by Jeffrey Ventrella, an innovator, artist, and computer programmer who lives in San Francisco. His number tree arranges the numbers from 1 to 100 according to their largest proper factors. For instance, the factors of 18 are 18, 9, 6, 3, 2, and 1. Once we toss out 18 itself as being “improper”—a.k.a. “uninteresting”—the largest factor of 18 is 9. This in turn has as its largest factor 3, and 3 goes down to 1. Chains of factors like this one make up Jeffrey’s tree. It has a wonderful accumulative feeling to it—it’s great to watch how patterns and complexity build up over time.

(On this theme, WDP also has a demonstrations about trees and about prime factorization graphs.)

Cloctal: “a fractal design that visualizes the passage of time”

There’s lots more math to explore on Jeffrey’s website. His piece Cloctal—a fractal clock—is one of my favorites. What I’d like to feature here, though, is the diverse and intricate work Jeffrey has done with plane-filling and space-filling curves.  You can find many examples at fractalcurves.com, Jeffrey’s website that’s chock full of great links.

Jeffrey recently completed a book called Brainfilling Curves. It’s “a visual math expedition, lead by a lifelong fractal explorer.” According to the description, the book picks up where Mandelbrot left off and develops an intuitive scheme for understanding an “infinite universe of fractal beauty.”

An example of a “brainfilling curve” from Jeffrey’s “root8″ family

The title comes from the idea that nature uses space-filling curves quite often, to pack intestines into your gut or lots and lots of tissue into the brain you’re using to read this right now! Hopefully you’re finding all of this math quite brainfilling as well.

(And just one more example of why WDP is worth revisiting: here’s a demonstration that depicts the space-filling Hilbert and Moore curves. So much good stuff!)

Finally, here’s a video that Jeffrey made about brainfilling curves. You can find more on his YouTube channel.

Bon appetit!