Welcome to this week’s Math Munch! For the final Thursday of May, we’ll be looking back at some of this month’s posts from our Facebook page. We’ll see some wordless videos by The Global Math Project, look at a prime number quiz game, and meet Fan Chung Graham, one of the world’s leading mathematicians.

I don’t know much about The Global Math Project, but I know James Tanton is involved, and that is always a good thing. (Remember his Exploding Dots?) Well, they’ve posted a couple of wonderful videos featuring Tanton’s “math without words.” Need I say more? See for yourself.

Up next is a neat little thing by Christian Lawson-Perfect from The Aperiodical. Christian bought isthisprime.com and set up a little quiz game. Click over and see for yourself how it goes… I’ll wait… click below…

It’s good practice for divisibility tests and getting your prime recognition up, but I suppose it’s not all that mathematical, is it? But Christian did something interesting. He recorded data from all the games played, and he wrote a summary of the results. I love all the charts and graphs in there. The one below shows how likely a number is to be missed by players.

Finally, I hadn’t heard of Fan Chung-Graham until I found an interview of her posted on Facebook. She is one of the world’s leading mathematicians in several fields, and though she recently retired, she still conducts some research. The interview is a little academic, but it’s still nice to get to know such a talented mathematician.

Well that wraps up the week and month. I hope you’ve found some tasty math. Have a great week and bon appetite!

Last summer where I live, in California, there were a lot of forest fires. We’re having a big drought, and that made fires started for lots accidental of reasons– lightning, downed power lines, things like that– get much bigger than usual. I thought I’d learn a little about forest fires so that I can be a more responsible resident of my state.

And I found this great website with an awesome computer simulation that you can manipulate to experiment with the factors that lead to forest fires!

My forest fire, just starting to burn. Click on this picture to play with the simulation! (Note: It doesn’t work as well in certain browsers. I recommend Firefox.)

This site was built by Nicky Case, who studies things that mathematicians and scientists call complex systems. Basically, a complex system is some phenomenon that has a simple set of causes but unpredictable results. An environment with forest fires is a good example– a simple lightning strike in a drought-ridden forest can cause a wildfire to spread in patterns that firefighters struggle to predict. It turns out that simulations are perfect for modeling complex systems. With just a few simple program rules we can create a huge number of situations to study. Even better, we can change the rules to see what will happen if, say, the weather changes or people are more careful about where and when they set fires.

What do you think? Click the picture to see Nicky’s simulation.

You can use Nicky’s program to change the probability that trees grow, a burning tree sets its neighbors on fire, and many other factors. You can even invent your own and model them with emojis. What if there were two kinds of trees and one was more flammable than the other? What if trees grew quickly but lightning was common? As Nicky shows, simulations are useful for exploring what-if questions in complex systems. Use your imagination and explore!

Next up, have you ever heard of a scrubbing calculator? No, it’s not a calculator that doubles as a sponge. It’s a calculator that helps you solve for unknowns in equations by “scrubbing,” or approximating, the answer until you find a number that works.

Here’s how it works: Say you’re trying to solve for an unknown, like the x in the equation above (maybe for some practical reason or just because you’re doing your homework). You could do some pretty complicated algebraic manipulations so that the x alone equals some number. But what if you could make a guess and change it until the equation worked?

Click on this image to see a scrubbing calculator in action!

If your guess was too big, you’d know because the expression wouldn’t equal 768 anymore– it would equal something larger. And if you had a calculator that instantly told you the solution based on your guess, you could do this guessing and checking pretty quickly.

Well, lucky for you I found a scrubbing calculator that you can use online! It’s very simple– just type in your equation and your guess, and click on the number you want to change (most likely the guess) to make it larger or smaller. It’s useful for solving equations, like I said. But I actually find it most interesting to watch how the whole expression changes as you change one of the numbers in it. For instance, check out the Pythagorean triple calculator I built. What do you notice as you gradually change one of the numbers in the expression?

Finally, I’m excited to share with you one of my favorite kinds of puzzles– Bongard problems!
A Bongard problem has two sets of pictures, with six pictures in each set. All of the pictures on the left have something in common that the pictures on the right do not. The challenge is to figure out what distinguishes the two groups of pictures.

This problem was made by Douglas Hofstadter, who introduced Bongard problems to the U.S. I haven’t figured it out yet. Can you?

I got the Bongard problems shown above from a collection of problems put together by cognitive scientist Harry Foundalis. He has almost 300 of them, some made by Mikhail Bongard himself, who developed these problems while studying how to train computers to recognize patterns.

I ran across the most wonderful compendium of slidey and twisty puzzles this past week when sharing the famous 15-puzzle with one of my classes. It’s called Jaap’s Puzzle Page and it’s run by a software engineer from the Netherlands named Jaap Scherphuis. Jaap has been running his Puzzle Page since 1999.

Jaap Scherphuis and some of his many puzzles

Jaap first encountered hands-on mathematical puzzles when he was given a Rubik’s Cube as a present when he was 8 or 9. He now owns over 700 different puzzles!

Jaap’s catalogue of slidey and twisty puzzles is immense and diverse. Each puzzle is accompanied by a picture, a description, a mathematical analysis, and–SPOILER ALERT–an algorithm that you can use to solve it!

On top of this, all of the puzzles in Jaap’s list with asterisks (*) next to them have playable Java applets on…

I was saddened to learn this week of the passing of Solomon Golomb.

Solomon Golomb.

Can you imagine the world without Tetris? What about the world without GPS or cell phones?

Here at Math Munch we are big fans of pentominoes and polyominoes—we’ve written about them often and enjoy sharing them and tinkering with them. While collections of glued-together squares have been around since ancient times, Solomon invented the term “polyominoes” in 1953, investigated them, wrote about them—including this book—and popularized them with puzzle enthusiasts. But one of Solomon’s outstanding qualities as a mathematician is that he pursued a range of projects that blurred the easy and often-used distinction between “pure” and “applied” mathematics. While polyominoes might seem like just a cute plaything, Solomon’s work with discrete structures helped to pave the way for our digital world. Solomon compiled the first book on digital communications and his work led to such technologies as radio telescopes. You can hear him talk about the applications that came from his work and more in this video:

Here is another video, one that surveys Solomon’s work and life. It’s fast-paced and charming and features Solomon in a USC Trojan football uniform! Here is a wonderful short biography of Solomon written by Elwyn Berlekamp. And how about a tutorial on a 16-bit Fibonacci linear feedback shift register—which Solomon mentions as the work he’s most proud of—in Minecraft!

Another kind of mathematical object that Solomon invented is a Golomb ruler. If you think about it, an ordinary 12-inch ruler is kind of inefficient. I mean, do we really need all of those markings? It seems like we could just do away with the 7″ mark, since if we wanted to measure something 7 inches long, we could just measure from the 1″ mark to the 8″ mark. (Or from 2″ to 9″.) So what would happen if we got rid of redundancies of this kind? How many marks do you actually need in order to measure every length from 1″ to 12″?

An optimal Golomb ruler of order 4.

Portrait of Solomon by Ken Knowlton.

I was pleased to find that there’s actually a distributed computing project at distributed.net to help find new Golomb Rulers, just like the GIMPS project to find new Mersenne primes. It’s called OGR for “Optimal Golomb Ruler.” Maybe signing up to participate would be a nice way to honor Solomon’s memory. It’s hard to know what to do when someone passionate and talented and inspiring dies. Impossible, even. We can hope, though, to keep a great person’s memory and spirit alive and to help continue their good work. Maybe this week you’ll share a pentomino puzzle with a friend, or check out the sequences on the OEIS that have Solomon’s name attached to them, or host a Tetris or Blokus party—whatever you’re moved to do.

Thinking about Golomb rulers got me to wondering about what other kinds of nifty rulers might exist. Not long ago, at Gathering for Gardner, Matt Parker spoke about a kind of ruler that foresters use to measure the diameter of tree. Now, that sounds like quite the trick—seeing how the diameter is inside of the tree! But the ruler has a clever work-around: marking things off in multiples of pi! You can read more about this kind of ruler in a blog post by Dave Richeson. I love how Dave got inspired and took this “roundabout ruler” idea to the next level to make rulers that can measure area and volume as well. Generalizing—it’s what mathematicians do!

I was also intrigued by an image that popped up as I was poking around for interesting rulers. It’s called a seam allowance curve ruler. Some patterns for clothing don’t have a little extra material planned out around the edges so that the clothes can be sewn up. (Bummer, right?) To pad the edges of the pattern is easy along straight parts, but what about curved parts like armholes? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a curved ruler? Ta-da!

A seam allowance curve ruler.

David Cohen

Speaking of Gathering for Gardner: it was announced recently that G4G is helping to sponsor an online puzzle challenge called 52 Master Pieces. It’s an “armchair puzzle hunt” created by David Cohen, a physician in Atlanta. It will all happen online and it’s free to participate. There will be lots of puzzle to solve, and each one is built around the theme of a “master” of some occupation, like an architect or a physician. Here are a couple of examples:

Notice that both of these puzzles involve pentominoes!

The official start date to the contest hasn’t been announced yet, but you can get a sneak peek of the site—for a price! What’s the price, you ask? You have to solve a puzzle, of course! Actually, you have your choice of two, and each one is a maze. Which one will you pick to solve? Head on over and give it a go!

Maze A

Maze B

And one last thing before I go: if you’re intrigued by that medicine puzzle, you might really like checking out 100 different ways this shape can be 1/4 shaded. They were designed by David Butler, who teaches in the Maths Learning Centre at the University of Adelaide. Which one do you like best? Can you figure out why each one is a quarter shaded? It’s like art and a puzzle all at once! Can you come up with some quarter-shaded creations of your own? If you do, send them our way! We’d love to see them.

Eight ways to quarter the cross pentomino. 92 more await you!