This is probably a consequence of being a mathematician, but I have always enjoyed number puzzles. I think that there is a general simplicity and universality in numbers that are not present in things like word puzzles, where the ability to reach a solution can be limited to the vocabulary of the user. The fact that these are puzzles and not simply homework exercises also helps because we often find people sharing difficulties and successes stories over the water cooler or at the lunch table. The fact that many of these math puzzles can teach some of the same concepts as homework problems (in a more fun and inclusive way) is generally lost on the user as their primary interest is generally on solving the puzzle in front of them, or sometimes solving the more general form of the puzzle. Today’s post is about a puzzle that was originally shared with me over a lunch table by a friend who thought it was an interesting problem and asked what I thought about it. I didn’t give the puzzle much further thought (he had correctly solved the puzzle) until I saw it again in “Algorithmic Puzzles” by Anany Levitin and Maria Levitin. It was then that I thought about the more general form of the puzzle, derived a solution for the problem, and decided to code it up as a script for my site. Below is a link to the puzzle: We have a set of random numbers arranged in a triangle and the question is to find the path of maximum sum from the root node (the top node) to the base (one of the nodes on the bottom row) with the rules that (1) Exactly one number must be selected from each row (2) A number can only be selected from a row if (a) it is the root node or (b) one of the two nodes above it has been selected. For the sample So for the sample problem in the picture, the maximal path would go through nodes 57, 99, 34, 95, and 27. For more of these puzzles check out the script I write here and be sure to let me know what you think.
Most puzzles are fun in their own right. Some puzzles are so fun that they have the added benefit that they are likely to come up in unexpected places, like maybe in a job interview. I was recently reading a paper by Günter Rote entitled “Crossing the Bridge at Night” where Rote analyzes such a puzzle. Upon finishing the paper, I decided to write a script so that users could see the general form of this puzzle. The problem can be stated as follows: There is a set of people, lets make the set finite by saying that there are exactly n people, who wish to cross a bridge at night. There are a few restrictions that make crossing this bridge somewhat complicated.
- Each person has a travel time across the bridge.
- No more than two people can cross the bridge at one time.
- If two people are on the bridge together, they must travel at the pace of the slower person.
- There is only one flashlight and no party (of one or two people) can travel across the bridge without the flashlight.
- The flashlight cannot be thrown across the bridge, and nobody can go to the store to purchase another flashlight
Whether introduced as children in elementary school, as adults in the workplace, or somewhere in between, the concept of magic squares has fascinated people for centuries; The Wikipedia article has discoveries of magic squares dating back to 650 B.C. in China. Magic Squares of size n (for n >= 3) are n by n grids where the numbers 1, 2, …, n2 are specially arranged such that the sum of each row, column, and diagonal all sum to the same number. Below are two examples of magic squares of size 3 and 4.
Notice first, that in the first square all the numbers 1, 2, 3, .., 9 are used in the square. Likewise, the numbers 1, 2, …, 15, 16 are used in the second square. Second notice that each row, column and diagonal sums to 15 in the first square and 34 in the second square.
I have recently published a puzzle that is based on the concept of magic squares. There are some slight differences though.
– First, instead of using the numbers 1, 2, …, n2 a random set of numbers are generated.
– Second, the rows and columns each have a desired sum that we would like the numbers in the row/column to sum to.
These two changes allow for a puzzle concept to be formulated based on the magic square concept. Users take turns swapping elements until the numbers in each row and column sum to the number in their goal cell, which is located in the last column or row of the grid. Above is an image of a solved puzzle.
Users can determine their progress the numbers in the next-to-last column, which tells the current sum of the numbers in that respective row or column.
To swap two numbers, first click on a cell with one of the two numbers in it. The cell should then turn red. Then click on the cell with the other number in it and the numbers should swap. If you click on the same cell twice no action should take place (except for the cell to turn red and then blank again).
Take a moment to check out the puzzles and let me know what you think.
Here in DC, we recently had an unexpected snow day. By the word unexpected, I don’t mean that the snow wasn’t forecast – it was definitely forecast. It just never came. However due to the forecast I decided to avoid traffic just in case the predictions were correct. So while staying at home, I began thinking about some things that I’ve been wanting to update on the site and one thing that came up was an update to my Sudoku program. Previously, it contained about 10000 sample puzzles of varying difficulty. However, I told myself that I would return to the idea of generating my own Sudoku puzzles. I decided to tackle that task last week. The question was how would I do this. The Sudoku solver itself works through the dancing links algorithm which uses backtracking, so this was the approach that figured as most likely to get me a profitable result in generating new puzzles (I have also seen alternative approaches discussed where people start with an initial Sudoku and swap rows and columns to generate a new puzzle). The next question was how to actually implement this method. Here is an overview of the algorithm. I went from cell to cell (left to right, and top to bottom starting in the top left corner) attempting to place a random value in that cell. If that value can be a part of a valid Sudoku (meaning that there exists a solution with the current cells filled in as is), then we continue and fill in the next cell. Otherwise, we will try to place a different value in the current cell. This process is continued until all cells are filled in. The next step was to create a puzzle out of a filled in Sudoku. The tricky about this step is that if too many cells are removed then we wind up generating a puzzle that has multiple solutions. If too few cells are removed though, then the puzzle will be too easy to solve. Initially, I went repeatedly removed cells from the locations that were considered the most beneficial. This generally results in a puzzle with about 35-40 values remaining. To remove additional cells, I considered each of the remaining values and questioned whether hiding the cell would result in the puzzle having multiple solutions. If this was the case, then the cell value was not removed. Otherwise it was. As a result I now have a program that generates Sudoku puzzles that generally have around 25 hints. You should give it a try.
A friend described this puzzle to me and I enjoyed it so much that I just had to write a script so that I could play it more. The rules of this puzzle are simple. Cells can be in one of three states: An UNSHADED (white) cell means that you have not considered this cell yet. A DARK GREY SHADED cell means that the sum of the dark grey shaded cells in that row and column must equal the number in that cell. A LIGHT GREY SHADED cell means that the sum of the dark grey shaded cells in all the connected cells must equal the number in that cell. I Hope you Enjoy
Growing up, I never really liked math. I saw it as one of those necessary evils of school. People always told me that if I wanted to do well and get into college, I needed to do well in math. So I took the courses required of a high school student, but I remember feeling utter confusion from being in those classes. My key problem was my inquisitive nature. I really didn’t like being “told” that certain things were true in math (I felt this way in most classes). I hated just memorizing stuff, or memorizing it incorrectly, and getting poor grades because I couldn’t regurgitate information precise enough. If this stuff was in fact “true”, I wanted to understand why. It seemed like so much was told to us without any explanation, that its hard to expect anybody to just buy into it. But that’s what teachers expected. And I was sent to the principal’s office a number of times for what they called “disturbing class”, but I’d just call it asking questions. At the same time, I was taking a debate class. This class was quite the opposite of my math classes, or really any other class I’d ever had. We were introduced to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, etc. The list goes on and on. We discussed theories, and spoke of how these concepts could be used to support or reject various propositions. Although these philosophies were quite complex, what I loved was the inquiries we were allowed to make into understanding the various positions. Several classmates and I would sit and point out apparent paradoxes in the theories. We’d ask about them and sometimes find that others (more famous than us) had pointed out the same paradoxes and other things that seemed like paradoxes could be resolved with a deeper understanding of the philosophy. Hate is a strong word, but I remember feeling that mathematicians were inferior to computer programmers because “all math could be programmed”. This was based on the number of formulas I had learned through high school and I remember having a similar feeling through my early years of college. But things changed when I took a course called Set Theory. Last year, I wrote a piece that somewhat describes this change:
They Do Exist! Let me tell you a story about when I was a kid See, I was confused and here's what I did. I said "irrational number, what’s that supposed to mean? Infinite decimal, no pattern? Nah, can't be what it seems." So I dismissed them and called the teacher wrong. Said they can't exist, so let’s move along. The sad thing is that nobody seemed to mind. Or maybe they thought showing me was a waste of time. Then one teacher said "I can prove they exist to you. Let me tell you about my friend, the square root of two." I figured it'd be the same ol' same ol', so I said, "Trying to show me infinity is like making gold from lead" So he replies, "Suppose you're right, what would that imply?" And immediately I thought of calling all my teachers lies. "What if it can be written in lowest terms, say p over q. Then if we square both sides we get a fraction for two." He did a little math and showed that p must be even. Then he asked, "if q is even, will you start believing?" I stood, amazed by what he was about to do. But I responded, "but we don't know anything about q" He says, "but we do know that p squared is a factor of 4. And that is equal to 2 q squared, like we said before." Then he divided by two and suddenly we knew something about q. He had just shown that q must be even too. Knowing now that the fraction couldn't be in lowest terms a rational expression for this number cannot be confirmed. So I shook his hand and called him a good man. Because for once I yould finally understand a concept that I had denied all my life, a concept that had caused me such strife. And as I walked away from the teacher's midst, Excited, I called him an alchemist and exhaled "THEY DO EXIST!"Aside from its lack of poetic content, I think that many mathematicians can relate to this poem, particularly the ones who go into the field for its theoretic principles. For many of us, Set Theory is somewhat of a “back to the basics” course where we learn what math is really about. The focus is no longer on how well you can memorize a formula. Instead, its more of a philosophy course on mathematics – like an introduction to the theory of mathematics, hence the name Set Theory. The poem above focuses on a particular frustration of mine, irrational numbers. Early on, we’re asked to believe that these numbers exist, but we’re not given any answers as to why they should exist. The same could be said for a number of similar concepts though – basically, whenever a new concept is introduced, there is a reasonable question of how do we know this is true. This is not just a matter of practicality, but a necessity of mathematics. I mean I could say “lets now consider the set of all numbers for which X + 1 = X + 2″, but if this is true for any X, then it means that 1 equals 2, which we know is not true. So the set I’d be referring to is the empty set. We can still talk about it, but that’s the set I’d be talking about. So why is this concept of answering the why’s of mathematics ignored, sometimes until a student’s college years? This gives students a false impression of what math really is, which leads to people making statements like “I hate math”, not really knowing what math is about.