Tag Archives: percentages

Light Bulbs, Lanterns, and Lights Out

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!


Edison with his light bulb.

On this day in 1880, Thomas Edison was given a patent for his most famous bright idea—the light bulb.

Edison once said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration”—a good reminder that putting in some work is important both in math and in life. He also said, “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.” A humbling thought. Also, based on that quote, it sounds like Edison might have had a use for permilles or even permyraids in addition to percents!

Mike's octahedron.

Mike’s octahedron-in-a-light-buld.

In celebration of this illustrious anniversary, I’d like to share some light mathematical fare relating to, well, light bulbs. For starters, J. Mike Rollins of North Carolina has created each of the Platonic solids inside of light bulbs, ship-in-a-bottle style. Getting just the cube to work took him the better part of twelve hours! Talk about perspiration. Mike has also made a number of lovely Escher-inspired woodcuts. Check ’em out!

Evelyn's Schwartz lantern.

Evelyn’s Schwartz lantern.

Next up is a far-out example from calculus that’s also a good idea for an art project. It’s called the Schwartz lantern. I found out about this amazing object last fall when Evelyn Lamb tweeted and blogged about it.

The big idea of calculus is that we can find exact answers to tough problems by setting up a pattern of approximations that get better and better and then—zoop! take the process to its logical conclusion at infinity. But there’s a catch: you have to be careful about how you set up your pattern!

A "nicely" triangulated cylinder.

A “nicely” triangulated cylinder.

For example, if you take a cylinder and approximate its surface with a bunch of triangles carefully, you’ll end up with a surface that matches the cylinder in shape and size. But if you go about the process in a different way, you can end up with a surface that stays right near the cylinder but that has infinite area. That’s the Schwartz lantern, first proposed by Karl Hermann Amandus Schwarz of Cauchy-Schwartz fame. The infinite area happens because of all the crinkles that this devilish pattern creates. For some delightful technical details about the lantern’s construction, check out Evelyn’s post and this article by Conan Wu.

Maybe you’ll try folding a Schwartz lantern of your own. There’s a template and instructions on Conan’s blog to get you started. You’ll be glowing when you finish it up—especially if you submit a photo of it to our Readers’ Gallery. Even better, how about a video? You could make the internet’s first Schwartz lantern short film!

Robert Torrence and his Lights Out puzzle.

Robert and his Lights Out puzzle.

At the MOVES Conference last fall, Bruce Torrence of Randolf-Macon College gave a talk about the math of Lights Out. Lights Out is a puzzle—a close relative of Ray Ray—that’s played on a square grid. When you push one of the buttons in the grid it switches on or off, and its neighbors do, too. Bruce and his son Robert created an extension of this puzzle to some non-grid graphs. Here’s an article about their work and here’s an applet on the New York Times website where you can play Lights Out on the Peterson graph, among others. You can even create a Lights Out puzzle of your own! If it’s more your style, you can try a version of the original game called All Out on Miniclip.

The original Lights Out handheld game from 1995.

The original Lights Out handheld game from 1995.

There’s a huge collection of Lights Out resources on Jaap’s Puzzle Page (previously), including solution strategies, variations, and some great counting problems. Lights Out and Ray Ray are both examples of what’s called a “sigma-plus game” in the mathematical literature. Just as a bonus, there’s this totally other game called Light Up. I haven’t solved a single puzzle yet, but my limitations shouldn’t stop you from trying. Perspiration!

All this great math work might make you hungry, so…bon appetit!

We Use Math, Integermania, and Best-of-Seven

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

astronaut“When will I use math?” Have you ever asked this question? Well, then you are in for a treat, because the good people of We Use Math have some answers for you! This site was created by the Math Department at Brigham Young University to help share information about career paths that are opened up by studying mathematics. Here’s their introductory video:

The We Use Math site shares write-ups about a wide range of career opportunities that involve doing mathematics. I was glad to learn more about less-familiar mathy careers like technical writing and cost estimation. Also, my brother has studied some operations management in college, so it was great to read the overview of that line of work. In addition, the We Use Math site has pages about recent math discoveries and about unsolved math problems. Check them out!

Next up is one of my long-time favorite websites: Integermania!

Perhaps you’ve heard of the four 4’s problem before. Using four 4’s and some arithmetic operations, can you make the numbers from 1 to 20? Or even higher? Some numbers are easy to make, like 16. It’s 4+4+4+4. Some are sneakier, like 1. One way it can be created is (4+4)/(4+4). But what about 7? Or 19? This is a very common type of problem in mathematics—which math objects of a certain type can be built with limited tools?


Steven J. Wilson

Integermania is a website where people from around the world have submitted number creations made of four small numbers and operations. It’s run by Steven J. Wilson, a math professor at Johnson County Community College in Kansas. (Steven has even more great math resources at his website Milefoot.com)

There are many challenges at Integermania: four 4’s, the first four prime numbers, the first four odds, and even the digits of Ramanujan’s famous taxicab number (1729).

Here are some number creations made of the first four prime numbers. Can you make some of your own?

Here are some number creations made of the first four prime numbers.
Can you make some of your own?

One of my favorite aspects of Integermania is the way it rates number creations by “exquisiteness level“. If a number creation is made using only simple operations—like addition or multiplication—then it’s regarded as more exquisite than if it uses operations like square roots or percentages. I also love how Integermania provides an opportunity for anyone to make their mark in the big world of mathematical research—it’s like scrawling a mathematical “I wuz here!” After years of visiting the site, I just submitted for the first time some number creations of my own. I’ll let you know how it goes, and I’d love to hear about it if you decide to submit, too.

Here are recaps of all the World Series since 1903 from MLB.com

Here are recaps of all the World Series since 1903 from MLB.com

Now coming to the plate: my final link of the week! Monday was the first day of the new Major League Baseball season. I want to share with you a New York Times article from last December. It’s called Keeping Score: Over in Four About a Fifth of the Time. The article digs into the outcomes of all of the World Series championships—not so much who won as how they won. It takes four victories to win a seven-game series, and there are 35 different ways that a best-of-seven series can play out, put in terms of wins and losses for the overall winner. For instance, a clean sweep would go WWWW, while another sequence would be WWLLWW. The article examines which of these win-loss sequences have been the most common in the World Series.

(Can you figure out why there are 35 possible win-loss sequences in a seven-game series? What about for a best-of-five series? And what if we tried to model the outcome of a series by assuming each team has a fixed chance of winning each game?)


A clip of the stats that are displayed in the Times article. Click through to see it all.

I was curious to know if the same results held true in other competitions. Are certain win-loss sequences rare across different sports? Are “sweeps” the most common outcome? After sifting through Wikipedia for a while, I was able to compile the statistics about win-loss sequences for hockey’s Stanley Cup Finals. This has been a best-of-seven series since 1939, and it has been played 73 times since then. (It didn’t happen in 2005 because of a lockout.) You can see the results of my research in this document. Two takeaways: sweeps are also the most common result in hockey, but baseball more frequently requires the full seven games to determine a winner.

It could be a fun project to look at other best-of-seven series, like the MLB’s League Championship Series or basketball’s NBA Finals. If you pull that data together, let us know in the comments!

Batter up, and bon appetit!


UPDATE (4/4/13): My first set of five number creations was accepted and are now posted on the Ramanujan challenge page. Here are the three small ones! Can you find a more exquisite way of writing 47 than I did?