Alternators: People and Coins

If like me, you fancy Raymond Smullyan and his books, then you’ve heard about knights and knaves. Knights always tell the truth and knaves always lie. In addition to knights and knaves, there are normal people who sometimes tell the truth and sometimes lie. Here is a puzzle.

Puzzle. How, in one sentence, can a normal person prove that they are normal?

We can draw a parallel between people and coins. We can say that knights correspond to real coins, and knaves to fake coins that are lighter than real ones. Inspired by normal people, my coauthor Konstantin Knop invented chameleon coins. Chameleon coins can change their weight and behave like real or fake coins. I just wrote a post about chameleon coins.

Normal people are too unpredictable: they can consistently pretend to be knights or knaves. So logicians invented a simpler type of person, one who switches from telling the truth in one sentence to a lie in the next and then back to the truth. Such people are called alternators. Here is another puzzle:

Puzzle. You meet a person who is one of the three types: a knight, a knave, or an alternator. In two questions, find out which type they are.

Continuing a parallel between people and coins we can define alternator coins: the coins that switch their weight each time they are on the scale from weighing as much as real ones to weighing as much as fake ones. For the purposes of this essay, we assume that the fake coins are lighter than real ones. Unlike the chameleon coin, which might never reveal itself by always pretending to be real, the alternators can always be found. How do you find a single alternator among many real coins? There is a simple strategy: repeat every weighing twice. This strategy allows us to find an alternator among 9 coins in four weighings. Can we do better?

I used the alternator coins as a research project for my PRIMES STEP program where we do math research with students in seventh and eighth grade. The students started the alternator project and immediately discovered the strategy above. The next step is to describe a better strategy. For example, what is the maximum number of coins containing one alternator such that the alternator can always be found in four weighings?

But first we count possible outcomes. Suppose there is a strategy that finds an alternator. In this strategy we can’t have two unbalanced weighings in a row. To prove that, let us suppose there was an unbalanced weighing. Then the alternator switches its weight to a real coin and whether or not the alternator is on the scale, the next weighing must balance. The beauty of it is that given a strategy each outcome has to point to a particular coin as an alternator. That means the number of outcomes bounds the total number of coins that can be processed.

Counting the number of possible outcomes that do not have two unbalances in row is a matter of solving a recurrence, which I leave to the readers to find. The result is Jacobshtal numbers: the most beautiful sequence you might never have heard of. For example, the total number of possible outcomes of four weighings is 11. Since each outcome of a strategy needs to point to a coin, the total number of coins that can be processed in four weighings is not more than 11. But 11 is better than 9 in our previous strategy. Can we process 11 coins in four weighings? Yes, we can. I will describe the first part of the strategy.

So we have 11 coins, one of which is an alternator. In the first weighing we compare 5 coins against 5 coins. If the weighing unbalances, the alternator is on a lighter pan. Our problem is reduced to finding the alternator among five coins when we know that it is in the real state. If the weighing balances, then we know that if the alternator is among the coins on the scale it must now be in the light state. For the second weighting, we pick two sets of three coins out of this ten coins and compare them against each other. Notice that 3 is a Jacobsthal number, and 5, the number of coins outside the scale, is also a Jacobsthal number. If the second weighing balances, the alternator must be among 5 coins outside the scale. All but one of these coins are in the light state, and I leave it to the readers to finish the strategy. If the weighing unbalances, we need to find the alternator among 3 coins that are in the real state now. This can be done in two weighings, and again the readers are to the rescue.

It appears that Jacobsthal numbers provide the exact lower bound of the number of coins that can be processed. This is what my middle-schoolers discovered and proved. We wrote a paper on the subject. The strategy in the paper is adaptive. That means it changes depending on the results of the previous weighings. Can we find an oblivious strategy? I will tell you in later posts.


One Comment

  1. Pseudonym:

    The first puzzle is straightforward if you’re used to these kinds of puzzles, because non-knave liars are the only type of person who can say they are a knave. So to prove you’re normal, say “I am a knave”.

    I like Puzzle 2. I won’t spoil it for others, but in my solution you ask the same question twice. Getting the same answer each time means it’s a knight or a knave and the answer tells you which. Getting a different answer means it’s an alternator.

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