Tag Archives: computers

Nautilus, The Riddler, and Brain Pickings

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Sometimes math pops up in places when you aren’t even looking for it. This week I’d like to share three websites that I enjoy. What they have in common is that they all cover a wide range of subjects—astronomy, politics, pop culture—but also host some great math if you know where to look for it.

nautilusFirst up is a site called Nautilus. In their own words, “We are here to tell you about science and its endless connections to our lives.” Each month they publish articles around a theme. This month’s theme is “Heroes.” Included in Nautilus’s mission is discussing mathematics, and you can find their math articles on this page. Here are a few articles to get you started. Read about how Penrose tiles have made the leap from nonrepeating abstraction to the real world—including to kitchen items. Learn about one of math’s beautiful monsters and how it shook the foundations of calculus. Or you might be interested in learning about how a mathematician is using computers to change the way we write proofs.

riddler_4x3_defaultNext, you might think that, since the presidential election is now over, you won’t be heading to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight quite as often. But do you know about the site’s column called The Riddler? Each week Oliver Roeder shares two puzzles, the newer Riddler Express and the Riddler Classic. Readers can send in their solutions, and some get featured on the website—that could be you! Here are a couple of puzzles to get you started, and you can also check out the full archive. The Puzzle of the Lonesome King asks about the chances that someone will win a prince-or-princess-for-a-day competition. Can You Win This Hot New Game Show? asks you to come up with a winning strategy for a round of Highest Number Wins. And Solve The Puzzle, Stop The Alien Invasion is just what is says on the tin.


The third site I’d like to point you to is Brain Pickings. It’s a wide-ranging buffet of short articles on all kinds of topics, written and curated by Maria Popova. If you search Brain Pickings for math, all kinds of great stuff will pop up. You can read about John ConwayPaul Erdős, Margaret WertheimBlaise Pascal, and more. You’ll find book recommendations, videos, history, and artwork galore. I particularly want to highlight Maria’s article about the trailblazing African American women who helped to put a man on the moon. Their story is told in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and the feature film by the same name is coming soon to a theater near you!

I hope you find lots to dig into on these sites. Bon appetit!

Solomon Golomb, Rulers, and 52 Master Pieces

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch.

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

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.

An optimal Golomb ruler of order 4.

Portrait of Solomon by Ken Knowlton.

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!

 img_3975  measuringtapes1

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.

A seam allowance curve ruler.

David Cohen

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 A

Maze B

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.

Six ways to quarter the cross pentomino. 94 more await you!

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

Bon appetit!

Pi Digit, Pi Patterns, and Pi Day Anthem


Painting by Renée Othot for Simon Plouffe’s birthday.

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

It’s here—the Pi Day of the Century happens on Saturday: 3-14-15!

How will you celebrate? You might check to see if there are any festivities happening in your area. There might be an event at a library, museum, school, or university near you.

(Here are some pi day events in NYC, Baltimore, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, and Charlotte.)


John Conway at the pi recitation contest in Princeton.

John Conway at the pi recitation contest in Princeton.

There’s a huge celebration here in Princeton—in part because Pi Day is also Albert Einstein’s birthday, and Albert lived in Princeton for the last 22 years of his life. One event involves kids reciting digits of pi and and is hosted by John Conway and his son, a two-time winner of the contest. I’m looking forward to attending! But as has been noted, memorizing digits of pi isn’t the most mathematical of activities. As Evelyn Lamb relays,

I do feel compelled to point out that besides base 10 being an arbitrary way of representing pi, one of the reasons I’m not fond of digit reciting contests is that, to steal an analogy I read somewhere, memorizing digits of pi is to math as memorizing the order of letters in Robert Frost’s poems is to literature. It’s not an intellectually meaningful activity.

I haven’t memorized very many digits of pi, but I have memorized a digit of pi that no one else has. Ever. In the history of the world. Probably no one has ever even thought about this digit of pi.

And you can have your own secret digit, too—all thanks to Simon Plouffe‘s amazing formula.


Simon’s formula shows that pi can be calculated chunk by chunk in base 16 (or hexadecimal). A single digit of pi can be plucked out of the number without calculating the ones that come before it.

Wikipedia observes:

The discovery of this formula came as a surprise. For centuries it had been assumed that there was no way to compute the nth digit of π without calculating all of the preceding n − 1 digits.

Check out some of Simon's math art!

Check out some of Simon’s math art!

Simon is a mathematician who was born in Quebec. In addition to his work on the digits of irrational numbers, he also helped Neil Sloane with his Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, which soon online and became the OEIS (previously). Simon is currently a Trustee of the OEIS Foundation.

There is a wonderful article by Simon and his colleagues David Bailey, Jonathan Borwein, and Peter Borwein called The Quest for Pi. They describe the history of the computation of digits of pi, as well as a description of the discovery of their digit-plucking formula.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most digits that someone has memorized and recited is 67,890. Unofficial records go up to 100,000 digit. So just to be safe, I’ve used an algorithm by Fabrice Bellard based on Simon’s formula to calculate the 314159th digit of pi. (Details here and here.) No one in the world has this digit of pi memorized except for me.

Ready to hear my secret digit of pi? Lean in and I’ll whisper it to you.

The 314159th digit of pi is…7. But let’s keep that just between you and me!

And just to be sure, I used this website to verify the 314159th digit. You can use the site to try to find any digit sequence in the first 200 million digits of pi.

Aziz and Peter's patterns.

Aziz & Peter’s patterns.

Next up: we met Aziz Inan in last week’s post. This week, in honor of Pi Day, check out some of the numerical coincidences Aziz has discovered in the early digits in pi. Aziz and his colleague Peter Osterberg wrote an article about their findings. By themselves, these observations are nifty little patterns. Maybe you’ll find some more of your own. (This kind of thing reminds me of the Strong Law of Small Numbers.) As Aziz and Peter note at the end of the article, perhaps the study of such little patterns will one day help to show that pi is a normal number.

And last up this week, to get your jam on as Saturday approaches, here’s the brand new Pi Day Anthem by the recently featured John Sims and the inimitable Vi Hart.

Bon appetit!

SquareRoots, Concave States, and Sea Ice

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

The most epic Pi Day of the century will happen in just a few weeks: 3/14/15! I hope you’re getting ready. To help you get into the spirit, check out these quilts.

American Pi.

American Pi.

African American Pi.

African American Pi.

There’s an old joke that “pi is round, not square”—a punchline to the formula for the area of a circle. But in these quilts, we can see that pi really can be square! Each quilt shows the digits of pi in base 3. The quilts are a part of a project called SquareRoots by artist and mathematician John Sims.

John Sims.

John Sims.

There’s lots more to explore and enjoy on John’s website, including a musical interpretation of pi and some fractal trees that he has designed. John studied mathematics as an undergrad at Antioch College and has pursued graduate work at Wesleyan University. He even created a visual math course for artists when he taught at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida.

I enjoyed reading several articles (1, 2, 3, 4) about John and his quilts, as well as this interview with John. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from it, in response to “How do you begin a project?”

It can happen in two ways. I usually start with an object, which motivates an idea. That idea connects to other objects and so on, and, at some point, there is a convergence where idea meets form. Or sometimes I am fascinated by an object. Then I will seek to abstract the object into different spatial dimensions.


Cellular Forest and Square Root of a Tree, by John Sims.

You can find more of John’s work on his YouTube channel. Check out this video, which features some of John’s music and an art exhibit he curated called Rhythm of Structure.

Next up: Some of our US states are nice and boxy—like Colorado. (Or is it?) Other states have very complicated, very dent-y shapes—way more complicated than the shapes we’re used to seeing in math class.

Which state is the most dent-y? How would you decide?


West Virginia is pretty dent-y. By driving “across” it, you can pass through many other states along the way.

The mathematical term for dent-y is “concave”. One way you might try to measure the concavity of a state is to see how far outside of the state you can get by moving in a straight line from one point in it to another. For example, you can drive straight from one place in West Virginia to another, and along the way pass through four other states. That’s pretty crazy.

But is it craziest? Is another state even more concave? That’s what this study set out to investigate. Click through to find out their results. And remember that this is just one way to measure how concave a state is. A different way of measuring might give a different answer.

Awesome animal kingdom gerrymandering video!

Awesome animal kingdom gerrymandering video!

This puzzle about the concavity of states is silly and fun, but there’s more here, too. Thinking about the denty-ness of geographic regions is very important to our democracy. After all, someone has to decide where to draw the lines. When regions and districts are carved out in a way that’s unfair to the voters and their interests, that’s called gerrymandering.

Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe.

To find out more about the process of creating congressional districts, you can listen to a talk by Karen Saxe, a math professor at Macalester College. Karen was a part of a committee that worked to draw new congressional districts in Minnesota after the 2010 US Census. (Karen speaks about compactness measures starting here.)

Recently I ran across an announcement for a conference—a conference that was all about the math of sea ice! I never grow tired of learning new and exciting ways that math connects with the world. Check out this video featuring Kenneth Golden, a leading mathematician in the study of sea ice who works at the University of Utah. I love the line from the video: “People don’t usually think about mathematics as a daring occupation.” Ken and his team show that math can take you anywhere that you can imagine.

Bon appetit!

Reflection sheet – SquareRoots, Concave States, and Sea Ice

George Washington, Tessellation Kit, and Langton’s Ant

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

002What will you do with your math notebook at the end of the school year? Keep it as a reference for the future? Save it as a keepsake? Toss it out? Turn it into confetti? Find your favorite math bits and doodles and make a collage?

Lucky for us, our first president kept his math notebooks from when he was a young teenager. And though it’s passed through many hands over the years—including those of Chief Justice John Marshall and the State Department—it has survived to this day. That’s right. You can check out math problems and definitions copied out by George Washington over 250 years ago. They’re all available online at the Library of Congress website.

Or at least most of them. They seem to be out of order, with a few pages missing!

Fred Rickey

That’s what mathematician and math history detective Fred Rickey has figured out. Fred has long been a fan of math history. Since he retired from the US Military Academy in 2011, Fred has been able to pursue his historical interests more actively. Fred is currently studying the Washington cypher books to help prepare a biography about Washington’s boyhood years. You can see two papers that Fred has co-authored about Washington’s mathematics here.

Fred writes:

Washington valued his cyphering books and kept them as a ready source of reference for the rest of his life. This would seem to be particularly true of his surveying studies.

Surveying played a big role in Washington’s career, and math is important for today’s surveyors, too.

Do you have a question for Fred about the math that George Washington learned? Send it to us and we’ll try to include it in our upcoming Q&A with Fred!

A tessellation, by me!

A tessellation, by me!

Next up, check out this Tessellation Kit. It was made by Nico Disseldorp, who also made the geometry construction game we featured recently. The kit is a lot of fun to play with!

One thing I like about this Tessellation Kit is how it’s discrete—it deals with large chunks of the screen at a time. This restriction make me want to explore, because it give me the feeling that there are only so many possible combinations.

I’m also curious about the URL for this applet—the web address for it. Notice how it changes whenever you make a change in your tessellation? What happens when you change some of those letters and numbers—like bababaaaa to bababcccc? Interesting…

For another fun applet, check out this doodling ant:

Langton's Ant.

Langton’s Ant.

Langton’s Ant is following a simple set of rules. In a white square? Turn right. In a black square? Turn left. And switch the color of the square that you leave. This ant is an example of a cellular automaton, and we’ve seen several of these here on Math Munch before. This one is different from others because it changes just one square at a time, and not the whole screen at once.

Breaking out of chaos.

Breaking out of chaos.

There’s a lot that is unknown about Langton’s ant, and it has some mysterious behavior. For example, after thousands of steps of seeming randomness, the ant goes into a steady pattern, paving a highway out to infinity. What gives? Well, you can try out some patterns of your own in the applets on the Serendip website. (previously). And you can read some amusing tales—ant-ecdotes?—about Langton’s ant in this lovely article.

DSC03509I learned about Langton’s Ant from Richard Evan Schwartz in our new Q&A. In the interview, Rich shares his thoughts about computers, art, what to pursue in life, and of course: Really Big Numbers.

Check it out, and bon appetit!

Squaring, Water Calculator, and Snap the Turtle

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

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.

Mrs. Perkin's quilt 1

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.”

Mrs. Perkin's quilt 18

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.

Mrs. Perkin's quilt 152

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!

Snap the TurtleFinally, 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!


Stomachion, Toilet Math, and Domino Computer Returns!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

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:

Stomachion_850So, 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.

StomaAnimSometimes 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.

Ostomachion536Solutions_850It 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!

Bon appetit!