Tag Archives: contest

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!

Talk Like a Computer, Infinite Hotel, and Video Contest

01010111 01100101 01101100 01100011 01101111 01101101 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01110111 01100101 01100101 01101011 00100111 01110011 00100000 01001101 01100001 01110100 01101000 00100000 01001101 01110101 01101110 01100011 01101000 00100001

Or, if you don’t speak binary, welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Looking at that really, really long string of 0s and 1s, you might think that binary is a really inefficient way to encode letters, numbers, and symbols. I mean, the single line of text, “Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!” turns into six lines of digits that make you dizzy to look at. But, suppose you were a computer. You wouldn’t be able to talk, listen, or write. But you would be made up of lots of little electric signals that can be either on or off. To communicate, you’d want to use the power of being able to turn signals on and off. So, the best way to communicate would be to use a code that associated patterns of on and off signals with important pieces of information– like letters, numbers, and other symbols.

That’s how binary works to encode information. Computer scientists have developed a code called ASCII, which stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, that matches important symbols and typing communication commands (like tab and backspace) with numbers.

To use in computing, those numbers are converted into binary. How do you do that? Well, as you probably already know, the numbers we regularly use are written using place-value in base 10. That means that each digit in a number has a different value based on its spot in the number, and the places get 10 times larger as you move to the left in the number. In binary, however, the places have different values. Instead of growing 10 times larger, each place in a binary number is twice as large as the one to its right. The only digits you can use in binary are 0 and 1– which correspond to turning a signal on or leaving it off.

But if you want to write in binary, you don’t have to do all the conversions yourself. Just use this handy translator, and you’ll be writing in binary 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101001 01101101 01100101 00101110

Next up, check out this video about a classic number problem: the Infinite Hotel Paradox. If you find infinity baffling, as many mathematicians do, this video may help you understand it a little better. (Or add to the bafflingness– which is just how infinity works, I guess.)

I especially like how despite how many more people get rooms at the hotel (so long as the number of people is countable!), the hotel manager doesn’t make more money…

Speaking of videos, how about a math video contest? MATHCOUNTS is hosting a video contest for 6th-8th grade students. To participate, teams of four students and their teacher coach choose a problem from the MATHCOUNTS School Handbook and write a screenplay based on that problem. Then, make a video and post it to the contest website. The winning video is selected by a combination of students and adult judges– and each member of the winning team receives a college scholarship!

Here’s last year’s first place video.

01000010 01101111 01101110 00100000 01100001 01110000 01110000 01100101 01110100 01101001 01110100 00100001  (That means, Bon appetit!)

Numenko, Turning Square, and Toilet Paper

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Have you ever played Scrabble or Bananagrams? Can you imagine versions of these games that would use numbers instead of letters?

Meet Tom Lennett, who imagined them and then made them!

Tom playing Numenko with his grandkids.

Tom playing Numenko with his grandkids.

Numemko is a crossnumber game. Players build up number sentences, like 4×3+8=20, that cross each other like in a crossword puzzle. There is both a board game version of Numenko (like Scrabble) and a bag game version (like Banagrams). Tom invented the board game years ago to help his daughter get over her fear of math. He more recently invented the bag game for his grandkids because they wanted a game to play where they didn’t have to wait their turn!

The Multichoice tile.

The Multichoice tile.

One important feature of Numenko is the Multichoice tile. Can you see how it can represent addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, or equality?

How would you like to have a Numenko set of your own? Well, guess what—Tom holds weekly Numenko puzzle competitions with prizes! You can see the current puzzle on this page, as well as the rules. Here’s the puzzle at the time of this post—the week of November 3, 2013.

Can you replace the Multichoice tiles to create a true number sentence?

Challenge: replace the Multichoice tiles to create a true number sentence.

I can assure you that it’s possible to win Tom’s competitions, because one of my students and I won Competition 3! I played my first games of Numenko today and really enjoyed them. I also tried making some Numenko puzzles of my own; see the sheet at the bottom of this post to see some of them.

Tom in 1972.

Tom in 1972.

In emailing with Tom I’ve found that he’s had a really interesting life. He grew up in Scotland and left school before he turned 15. He’s been a football-stitcher, a barber, a soldier, a distribution manager, a paintball site operator, a horticulturist, a property developer, and more. And, of course, also a game developer!

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Tom? Send it in through the form below, and we’ll try to include it in our upcoming Q&A!


The level editor.

Say, do you like Bloxorz? I sure do—it’s one of my favorite games! So imagine my delight when I discovered that a fan of the game—who goes by the handle Jz Pan—created an extension of it where you can make your own levels. Awesome, right? It’s called Turning Square, and you can download it here.

(You’ll need to uncompress the file after downloading, then open TurningSquare.exe. This is a little more involved than what’s usual here on Math Munch, but I promise it’s worth it! Also, Turning Square has only been developed for PC. Sorry, Mac fans.)

The level!

The level I made!

But wait, there’s more! Turning Square also introduces new elements to Bloxorz, like slippery ice and pyramids you can trip over. It has a random level generator that can challenge you with different levels of difficulty. Finally, Turning Square includes a level solver—it can determine whether a level that you create is possible or not and how many steps it takes to complete.

Jz Pan is from China and is now a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, majoring in mathematics and studying number theory. Jz Pan made Turning Square in high school, back in 2008.

Jz Pan has agreed to answer some of your questions! Use the form below to send us some.

If you make a level in Turning Square that you really like, email us the .box file and we can share it with everyone through our new Readers’ Gallery! Here is my level from above, if you want to try it out.

Jz Pan has also worked on an even more ambitious extension of Bloxorz called Turning Polyhedron. The goal is the same, but like the game Dublox, the shape that you maneuver around is different. Turning Polyhderon features several different shapes. Check out this video of it being played with a u-polyhedron!

And if you think that’s wild, check out this video with multiple moving blocks!

Last up this week, have you ever heard that it’s impossible to fold a piece of paper in half more than eight times? Or maybe it’s seven…? Either way, it’s a “fact” that seems to be common knowledge, and it sure seems like it’s true when you try to fold up a standard sheet of paper—or even a jumbo sheet of paper. The stack sure gets thick quickly!

Britney Gallivan and her 11th fold.

Britney and her 11th fold.

Well, here’s a great story about a teenager who decided to debunk this “fact” with the help of some math and some VERY big rolls of toilet paper. Her name is Britney Gallivan. Back in 2001, when she was a junior in high school, Britney figured out a formula for how much paper she’d need in order to fold it in half twelve times. Then she got that amount of paper and actually did it!

Due to her work, Britney has a citation in MathWorld’s article on folding and even her own Wikipedia article. After high school, Britney went on to UC Berkeley where she majored in Environmental Science. I’m trying to get in touch with Britney for an interview—if you have a question for her, hold onto it, and I’ll keep you posted!

EDIT: I got in touch with Britney, and she’s going to do an interview!

A diagram that illustrates how Britney derived her equation.

A diagram that illustrates how Britney derived her equation.

The best place to read more about Britney’s story in this article at pomonahistorical.org—the historical website of Britney’s hometown. Britney’s story shows that even when everyone else says that something’s impossible, that doesn’t mean you can’t be the one to do it. Awesome.

I hope you enjoy trying some Numenko puzzles, tinkering with Turning Square, and reading about Britney’s toilet paper adventure.

Bon appetit!

PS Want to see a video of some toilet-paper folding? Check out the very first “family math” video by Mike Lawler and his kids.

Reflection Sheet – Numenko, Turning Square, and Toilet Paper

Mathpuzzle, Video Contests, and Snowflakes

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!


One of my favorite math sites on the internet is mathpuzzle. It’s written and curated by recreational mathematician Ed Pegg Jr. About once a month, Ed makes a post that shares a ton of awesome math—interesting tilings, tricky puzzles, results about polyhedra and polyominos, and so much more. Below are some of my favorite finds at mathpuzzles. Go to the site to discover much more to explore!


Shapes that three kinds of polyominoes can tile.


Erich Friedman’s 2012 holiday puzzles


A slideable, flexible hypercube you can hold in your hands! Video below.


Next, have you ever wanted to be a movie star? How about a math movie star? Then there are two math video contests that you should know about. The first is for middle schoolers— the Reel Math Challenge. It’s run by MATHCOUNTS, which has for many years run a middle school problem solving contest. (I competed in it when I was in middle school.) This is only the second year for the Reel Math Challenge, but lots of videos have already been created. You can check them out here.

MathovisionThe second contest is for high schoolers and is called Math-O-Vision. The challenge is to make a video that shows “the way Math fills our world.” Math-O-Vision is sponsored by the Dartmouth College Math Department and the Neukom Institute.

makeaflakeFinally, here’s a fun little applet I found called Make-a-Flake. You can use it to make intricate digital snowflake designs.


Two snowflakes from the Make-a-Flake gallery.

Of course, it’s a lot of fun to make non-virtual snowflakes as well—find a pair of scissor and some paper and go for it! For basic instructions, head over to snowflakes.info. And for some inspiration, check out this Flickr group!

Bon appetit!