Archive for the ‘Books and Movies Reviews’ Category.

The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014

The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014Some of my friends collect volumes of The Best Writing on Mathematics published by Princeton University Press. The first annual volume appeared in 2010. In 2014, one of my papers, Conway’s Wizards, was chosen to be included in the volume The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014.

All my life I have hated writing. My worst grades in high school were for writing. I couldn’t write in Russian, and I was sure I would never be able to write in English. I was mistaken. I am a better writer than I gave myself credit for being.

Writing in English is easier for me than writing in Russian because when I make a mistake, I have an excuse. As my written English gets better and better, maybe one day I’ll get the courage to try writing in Russian.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank Sue Katz, my friend, English teacher, and editor. Sue edits most of my blog essays. Originally I wrote about Conway’s wizards on my blog. When I had three essays on the subject I combined them into a paper. Sue edited the essays and the paper. I am honored to be included in this respected volume and I want to share this honor with Sue.


Linear Algebra on a Mission Impossible

I love making math questions out of the movies. Here is a Mission Impossible III question.

Tom Cruise is cute. He plays Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible movies. In Mission Impossible III he needs to steal the Rabbit’s Foot from a secure skyscraper in Shanghai. He arrives in Shanghai and studies the skyscraper looking out his window. He decides to break in through the roof. And the way to get to the roof is to use a rope and swing across from another, even taller, skyscraper. 1:21 minutes into the movie, Ethan Hunt calculates the length of the rope he will need by using the projection of a skyline on his window, as seen on the first picture.

MI3 Skyline

Explain why the projection is not enough to calculate the length of the rope. What other data does he need for that? Ethan Hunt does request extra data. But he makes one mistake. He uses his pencil as a compass to draw the end of the rope curve, as seen on the second picture. Explain what his mistake is.

MI3 Rope


Taking Sudoku Seriously

Taking Sudoku SeriouslyI received the book Taking Sudoku Seriously by by Jason Rosenhouse and Laura Taalman for review and put it aside to collect some dust. You see, I have solved too many Sudokus in my life. The idea of solving another one made me barf. Besides, I thought I knew all there is to know about the mathematics of Sudoku.

One day out of politeness or guilt I opened the book — and couldn’t stop reading.

The book is written for people who like Sudoku, but hate math. This is so strange. Sudoku is math. People who are good at Sudoku are good at math, or at least they are supposed to be. It seems that math education in the United States is so bad that people who were born to be good at math and to like math, hate it instead. So the goal of the book is to establish a bridge from Sudoku to math. And the book does a superb job of it.

This well-written book moves from puzzles to discussions in such a natural way that math becomes a continuation of puzzles.

Taking Sudoku Seriously covers a lot of fun material: methods to solve Sudoku, how to count the number of different Sudoku puzzles, and how to find the smallest number of clues that are needed for a unique puzzle. The book travels into the neighboring area of Latin and Greco-Latin squares. While discussing all those fun things it covers groups, symmetries, number theory, graph theory (including book thickness) and more.

I am not the target audience for this book, because I do not need convincing that math is fun. The best part for me was the hundred puzzles. Only a portion of them were standard Sudoku puzzles — and I skipped those. The others were either Sudoku with a twist or plain math puzzles.

The puzzles are all very different and I was so excited by them, that I went ahead and solved them, and caught up with reading the text later. And I enjoyed both: reading and solving.

Here is puzzle 91 from the book. Fill in the grid so that every row, column, and block contains 1-9 exactly once. In addition, each worm must contain entries that increase from tail to head. For blue worms you must figure out yourself which end is the head.

Worms Sudoku


My Take on Perelman

My American friends often ask me for insights into why Grigory Perelman refused the one million dollar Clay prize for his proof of the Poincaré conjecture. They are right to ask me: my life experience was very similar to Perelman’s.

I went to a high school for children gifted in math. I was extremely successful in competitions. I got my gold medal at IMO and went to college without entrance exams. I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees in one of the best math academic centers in Soviet Russia. Perelman traveled a similar path.

Without ever having met Perelman, I can suggest two explanations of why he might reject the money.

First explanation. To have it publicly known that you have suddenly come into money is very dangerous in Russia. Perelman’s life expectancy would have dropped immediately after accepting the million dollars. Russians that have tons of money either hide their wealth or build steel doors way before they make their first million. In addition to being a life hazard, money attracts a lot of bother. He would have been chased by all types of acquaintances asking for help or suggesting marriage proposals.

Second explanation. We grew up in a communist culture where money was scorned and math was idolized. The goal of research was research. Proving the conjecture was the prize itself. In his mind, receiving the award money might diminish the value of what he did. I understand this way of thinking, but I am personally too practical to follow such feelings and would accept the prize.

My first explanation has a flaw. Though valid, it doesn’t explain why he rejected the Fields medal. So I reached for the book abour Perelman, Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen. I like Gessen’s explanation of why he rejected the Fields medal:

His objection to the Fields Medal, though never stated as clearly, seemed to have been twofold: first: he no longer considered himself a mathematician and hence could not accept a price intended for the encouragement of midcareer researchers; and second, he wanted no part of ICM, with all the attendant publicity, speeches, ceremony, and king of Spain.

The reasons are specifically related to the medal, so the Clay prize rejection might not be connected to the medal rejection. This argument slightly rehabilitates my first explanation.

Perfect Rigor

I liked the book. It is a tremendous undertaking — writing about a person who doesn’t want to talk to anyone. After reading it, I have one more possible explanation of his refusal of the prize.

Perelman is a loner. One of the closest people to him was his math Olympiad coach. The coaches tend to understand the solutions on the spot, mostly because they already know them. If in his mind Perelman expected all mathematicians to be like his coach, then he might have expected a parade in his honor the day after he solved the conjecture. Instead, he got silence and attempts to steal the prize from him.

Can you imagine doing the century’s best math work without receiving congratulations for many years? The majority of mathematicians waited for the judgment of the experts, as did Perelman. The experts were busy and much slower than Perelman expected. The conjecture was extremely difficult, and it was a high-profile situation — after all, $1 million was attached to its solution. So the experts were very cautious in their pronouncements.

Finally, instead of congratulating Grigory, they said that the proof seemed to be correct and that they had not yet found any mistakes. If like Perelman, I was certain of my proof, I would have found this a painfully under-whelming conclusion.

Perelman expected to feel proud, but instead he probably felt unappreciated and attacked. Instead of the parade he may have hoped for, he had to wait for a long time, only to face disappointment and frustration. This reminds me of an old joke:

A genie is trapped in a lantern at the bottom of the sea. He vows, “I will give one million dollars to the person who frees me.” One thousand years pass. He changes his vow, “I will give any amount of money to the one who frees me.” Another thousand years pass. He ups the ante, “I will give any amount of money and two more wishes to the person who frees me.” Another thousand years pass. He promises, “I will kill the one who frees me.”

Third explanation. Perelman was profoundly disappointed in the math community. Unlike the genie, Perelman didn’t want to kill anyone, but he did want to express his disillusionment. Perhaps that is why he rejected a million dollars.


World Championship Puzzles

WPC Volume 1Do you like challenging puzzles? Are you tired of sudoku? Here’s your chance to try your hand at puzzles that are designed for world puzzle championships.

I’ve already done the homework for you — and it turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated. The world puzzle federation has a website, but unfortunately they are lazy or secretive. It is difficult to find puzzles there. A few puzzles are available in the World Puzzle Federation Newsletters.

Since I am stubborn, I spent a lot of time looking for championship puzzles. I found them in books. Here is the list I compiled so far. If you too are interested in high-level puzzles, this ought to make your search a lot easier. The book titles are confusing, so I added a description of what’s in them.

One of my favorite puzzle types is Easy as ABC. You have to fill one of A, B, C, and D in each row and column. The letters outside the grid indicate which letter you see first from that direction. Here is one from the 2011 newsletter:

Easy as ABC


Math Girls

Two girls. One is older and more experienced. The other is younger and more naive. Which of these two girls will the unnamed male narrator choose? What a great plot for a math book.

Math Girls

I am talking about Hiroshi Yuki’s book Math Girls. The plot allows the author to discuss math on different levels. Miruka’s math is more advanced and mysterious. Tetra’s math is simpler and more transparent.

The book starts discussing sequences and patterns. Can you guess the pattern behind the sequence: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 8, 12, 18, 27, …? Can you explain how the beginning of this sequence might be very deceptive?

For the answer, you can read the book, which also discusses tons of fun topics: prime numbers, sum of divisors, absolute values, rotations and oscillations, De Moivre’s formula, generating functions, arithmetic and geometric means, differential and difference operators, Catalan numbers, infinite series, harmonic numbers, zeta function, Taylor series, partitions, and more.

I usually do not like math fiction, but this is more math than fiction. It’s quite superior to most other math books I’ve read, for it shows the unity of mathematics. It allows the readers to discover connections among different parts of mathematics, and it accomplishes this in a very thrilling way. Frankly, more thrilling than the romantic sections.

The fictional element brings an additional value to the book. The author uses dialogue to discuss points that are usually skipped in regular text books. The two girls give the narrator an opportunity to explore math on different levels: to talk about heavy stuff with Miruka and to provide explanations with Tetra.

I expected to be more interested in the sections dealing with advanced math. But the book is so well-written that the simpler things were a lot of fun, too. For example, I never before noticed that the column notation for n choose k is exactly the same as for a 2d vector with coordinates n and k. And I will never ever shout “zero” because the exclamation makes it “one”.


Why Americans Should Study the Moscow Math Olympiads

MMO 1993-1999I have already written about how American math competition are illogically structured, for the early rounds do not prepare students for the later rounds. The first time mathletes encounter proofs is in the third level, USAMO. How can they prepare for problems with proofs? My suggestion is to look East. All rounds of Russian math Olympiads — from the local to the regional to the national — are structured in the same way: they have a few problems that require proofs. This is similar to the USAMO. At the national All-Russian Olympiad, the difficulty level is the same as USAMO, while the regionals are easier. That makes the problems from the regionals an excellent way to practice for the USAMO. The best regional Olympiad in Russia is the Moscow Olympiad. Here is the problem from the 1995 Moscow Olympiad:

We start with four identical right triangles. In one move we can cut one of the triangles along the altitude perpendicular to the hypotenuse into two triangles. Prove that, after any number of moves, there are two identical triangles among the whole lot.

This style of problems is very different from those you find in the AMC and the AIME. The answer is not a number; rather, the problem requires proofs and inventiveness, and guessing cannot help.

Here is another problem from the 2002 Olympiad. In this particular case, the problem cannot be adapted for multiple choice:

The tangents of a triangle’s angles are positive integers. What are possible values for these tangents?

MMO 1993-1999

The problems are taken from two books: Moscow Mathematical Olympiads, 1993-1999, and Moscow Mathematical Olympiads, 2000-2005. I love these books and the problems they present from past Moscow Olympiads. The solutions are nicely written and the books often contain alternative solutions, extended discussion, and interesting remarks. In addition, some problems are indexed by topics, which is very useful for teachers like me. But the best thing about these books are the problems themselves. Look at the following gem from 2004, which can be used as a magic trick or an idea for a research paper:

A deck of 36 playing cards (four suits of nine cards each) lies in front of a psychic with their faces down. The psychic names the suit of the upper card; after that the card is turned over and shown to him. Then the psychic names the suit of the next card, and so on. The psychic’s goal is to guess the suit correctly as many times as possible.
The backs of the cards are asymmetric, so each card can be placed in the deck in two ways, and the psychic can see which way the top card is oriented. The psychic’s assistant knows the order of the cards in the deck; he is not allowed to change the order, but he may orient any card in either of the two ways.
Is it possible for the psychic to make arrangements with his assistant in advance, before the latter learns the order of the cards, so as to ensure that the suits of at least (a) 19 cards, (b) 23 cards will be guessed correctly?
If you devise a guessing strategy for another number of cards greater than 19, explain that too.


Weighings and Puzzles

My co-author Konstantin Knop wrote a charming book, Weighings and Algorithms: from Puzzles to Problems. The book contains more than one hundred problems. Here are a couple of my favorites that I translated for you:

There is one gold medal, three silver medals and five bronze medals. It is known that one of the medals is fake and weighs less than the corresponding genuine one. Real medals made of the same metal weigh the same and from different metals do not. How can you use a balance scale to find the fake medal in two weighings?

There are 15 coins, out of which not more than seven are fake. All genuine coins weigh the same. Fake coins might not weigh the same, but they differ in weight from genuine coins. Can you find one genuine coin using a balance scale 14 times? Can you do it using fewer weighings?

You might get the impression that the latter problem depends on two parameters. Think about it: It is necessary that the majority of the coins are genuine in order to be able to solve the problem. In fact, the number of weighings depends on just one parameter: the total number of coins. Denote a(n) the optimal number of weighings needed to find a genuine coin out of n coins, where more than half of the coins are genuine. Can you calculate this sequence?

Hint. I can prove that a(n) ≤ A011371(n-1); that is, the optimal number of weighings doesn’t exceed n − 1 − (number of ones in the binary expansion of n−1).


The Oxford Murders

The Oxford MurdersI decided to see the film The Oxford Murders

At the core of the movie are sequences of numbers and symbols. When the characters started a discussion about how to continue a sequence, I immediately tensed up. Why? Because when people ask what the next element in the sequence is, I get ready to confront them, by explaining that there are many ways to continue a sequence. For example, the sequence — 1, 2, 4 — could be powers of two, or could be Tribonacci numbers, or any of 10,000 sequences that the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences spills out if you plug in 1, 2, 4. That is, if we do not count the infinity of sequences that are not in the Encyclopedia.

To my surprise and relief, the logic Professor, one of the main characters in the movie, explained that there is no unique way to continue a sequence. From that moment on, I relaxed and fell in love with the movie.

The movie is a detective story with a lot of twists and turns. The crimes are related to symbols. The first two symbols are in the picture below. Can you guess the next symbol?

The Oxford Murders Sequence

I cannot. There is an irony in the film at this point, because the Professor and the student need to guess the sequence in order to solve the crimes. But the Professor has already explained that there is no unique way to continue. So illogical for a movie about logic.

And what’s worse, the sequence of symbols they finally discover doesn’t make sense. I guess I fell in love with this movie too quickly.


Eat to Live

Eat to LiveI am reading the book Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman. It contains a formula that as a math formula doesn’t make any sense. But as an idea, it felt like a revelation. Here it is:


The idea is to choose foods that contain more nutrients per calorie. The formula doesn’t make sense for many reasons. Taken to its logical conclusion, the best foods would be vitamins and tea. The formula doesn’t provide bounds: it just emphasizes that your calories should be nutritious. However, too few calories — nutritious or not — and you will die. And too many calories — even super nutritious — are still too many calories. In addition the formula doesn’t explain how to balance different types of nutrients.

Let’s see why it was a revelation. I often crave bananas. I assumed that I need bananas for some reason and my body tells me that. Suppose I really need potassium. As a result I eat a banana, which contains 800 milligrams of potassium and adds 200 calories as a bonus. If I ate spinach instead, I would get the same amount of potassium at a price of only 35 calories.

The book suggests that if I start eating foods that are high in nutrients, I will satisfy my need for particular nutrients, and my cravings will subside. As a result I will not want to eat that much. If I start my day eating spinach, that might eliminate my banana desire.

I’ve been following an intuitive eating diet. I am trying to listen to my body hoping that my body will tell me what is better for it. It seems that my body sends me signals that are not precise enough. It’s not that my body isn’t communicating with me, but it is telling me “potassium” and all I hear is “bananas.” What I need to do is use my brain to help me decipher what my body really, really wants to tell me.

As Dr. Fuhrman puts it, we are a nation of overfed and malnourished people. But Fuhrman’s weight loss plan is too complicated and time-consuming for me, so I designed my own plan based on his ideas:

I will start every meal with vegetables, as they are the most nutritious. I hope that vegetables will provide the nutrients I need. That in turn will make me less hungry by the next meal, at which time I’ll take in fewer calories. I will report to my readers whether or not my plan works. I’m off to shop for spinach. Will I ever love it as much as bananas?