Archive for the ‘Math Education’ Category.

Playing with Pascal’s Triangle

The beautiful Pascal triangle has been around for many years. Can you say something new about it?

Pascal Triangle Mod 2

Of course you can. Mathematicians always find new way to look at things. In 2012 RSI student, Kevin Garbe, did some new and cool research related to the triangle. Consider Pascal’s triangle modulo 2, see picture which was copied from a stackexchange discussion.

A consecutive block of m digits in one row of the triangle modulo 2 is called an m-block. If you search the triangle you will find that all possible binary strings of length 2 are m-blocks. Will this trend continue? Yes, you can find any possible string of length 3, but it stops there. The blocks you can find are called accessible blocks. So, which blocks of length 4 are not accessible?

There are only two strings that are not accessible: 1101 and 1011. It is not surprising that they are reflections of each other. Pascal’s triangle respects mirror symmetry and the answer should be symmetric with respect to reflection.

You can’t find these blocks on the picture, but how do we prove that they are not accessible, that is, that you can’t ever find them? The following amazing property of the triangle can help. We call a row odd/even, if it corresponds to binomial coefficients of n choose something, where n is an odd/even number. Every odd row has every digit doubled. Moreover, if we take odd rows and replace every double digit with its single self we get back Pascal’s triangle. Obviously the two strings 1101 and 1011 can’t be parts of odd rows.

What about even rows? The even rows have a similar property: every even-indexed digit is a zero. If you remove these zeros you get back Pascal’s triangle. The two strings 1101 and 1011 can’t be part of even rows. Therefore, they are not accessible.

The next question is to count the number of inaccessible blocks of a given length: a(n). This and much more was done by Kevin Garbe for his RSI 2012 project. (I was the head mentor of the math projects.) His paper is published on the arxiv. The answer to the question can be found by constructing recurrence relations for odd/even rows. It can be shown that a(2r) = 3a(r) + a(r+1) − 6 and a(2r+1) = 3a(r) + 2a(r+1) − 6. As a result the number of inaccessible blocks of length n is n2n + 2. I wonder if there exists a direct proof of this formula without considering odd and even rows separately.

This RSI result was so pretty that it became a question at our entrance PRIMES test for the year 2013. In the test we changed the word accessible to admissible, so that it would be more difficult for applicants to find the research. Besides, Garbe’s paper wasn’t arxived yet.

The pretty picture above is from the stackexchange, where one of our PRIMES applicants tried to solicit help in solving the test question. What a shame.

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How Many Triangles?

The following problem was at a 2016 entrance test for the MIT PRIMES STEP program.

I drew several triangles on a piece of paper. First I showed the paper to Lev and asked him how many triangles there were. Lev said 5 and he was right. Then I showed the paper to Sasha and asked him how many triangles there were. Sasha said 3 and he was right. How many triangles are there on the paper? Explain.

The intended answer was 8: there were 5 triangles on one side of the paper and 3 on the other.

Most of the students didn’t think that the paper might be two-sided, but they came up with other inventive ideas. Below are some of their pictures, and I leave it to you to explain why they work. All the students who submitted these pictures got a full credit for this problem on the test.

Example 7Example 5Example 4Example 3Example 1Example 2Example 6
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Should You Apply to PRIMES?

If you are a high-school student who wants to conduct research in mathematics, you should check out the MIT PRIMES program. If you enjoy solving the problems in our entrance test, that’s the first indication that you might want to apply. But to determine if the program is right for you, and you are right for the program, please read the following questions and answers which have been prepared for you by Tanya Khovanova, the PRIMES Head Mentor. (This only addresses applications to PRIMES Math, and only to the research track)

Question: I do not like math competitions. Should I apply?
Answer: Math competitions are completely separate from research in mathematics. If you enjoy thinking about mathematics for long periods of time and are fascinated by our test questions, you should apply.

Question: I am good at math, but I really want to be a doctor. Should I apply?
Answer: No. PRIMES requires a huge time commitment, so math should really be your most significant interest.

Question: I want to get into Harvard, and PRIMES looks good on a resume. Should I apply?
Answer: PRIMES does look good on a resume. But if you are more passionate about, say, climate change than math, what would Harvard’s admission committee see? Our experience in the program is that if math isn’t your top interest, your math student may not be sufficiently impressive to be accepted at Harvard as a math researcher. At the same time, you will not be accepted as the top climate change student as you didn’t invest your time in that. Math research is a hard way to earn points for college. See also, the essay, Thoughts on research by Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo.

Question: My parents want me to apply. Should I apply?
Answer: Your parents will not be accepted to the program. Do not apply if you do not really, really want to.

Question: Your website suggests that I should spend ten hours a week on the PRIMES project. I can only spend five. But I am a genius and faster than other people.
Answer: We already assume that you are a genius and faster than anyone else you know. Five hours a week are not enough for a successful project.

Question: I looked at the past PRIMES projects and nothing excites me as much as my current interest in Pascal’s triangle. I doubt I should apply.
Answer: When you start working on a project, you will learn a lot about it. You will understand why, for example, Cherednik algebras are cool. The excitement comes with knowledge and invested time. Not yet being excited about Cherednik algebras is not a good reason not to apply. Besides a lot of exciting mathematics is done between several different fields.

Question: I really want to do nothing else than study Pascal’s triangle.
Answer: We try to match our projects to students’ interests as much as we can. But we almost never can fulfill a specific request as above. You might get a project related to Young diagrams, which are connected to quantum Pascal’s triangle. If this connection doesn’t excite you, you shouldn’t apply.

Question: I think I will be better positioned for research if I spend five more years studying.
Answer: There is nothing wrong with this approach. For many years the standard was to start research in graduate school. Our program is innovative. At PRIMES we are trying a different model. It may sound scary, but you will learn everything you need to know in order to do your project. If the project is in representation theory, for example, you will only learn what you need—not the whole theory. Our hope is that eventually you will take a course in representation theory and expand your grasp of it and see the bigger picture behind your project. We have a reading track for people like you who reside in Boston area.

Question: I love math, but I am not sure that I want to be a mathematician. Should I apply?
Answer: Many people start loving math early in life and then discover that there are many other things that require a similar kind of brain: computer science, cryptography, finance, and so on. We do not require from our students a commitment to become mathematicians. If you want to try research in math, you should apply. If students decide that they do not want to do research in math after finishing our program, we do not consider that a negative result. One way or another, the experience of PRIMES will help you understand better what you want to do with your life.

Question: I want to get to the International Math Olympiad. I am afraid that the time the research project takes prevents me from preparing for competitions. Should I apply?
Answer: People who are good at Olympiads often have fantastic brain power that helps in research. On the other hand, research requires a different mind set and the transition might be painful. It is possible, but not trivial to succeed in both. It is up to you to decide how you want to spend your time.

Question: I like number theory, but I do not see past PRIMES projects in number theory.
Answer: Doable number theory projects are hard to come by and we have fewer number theory projects than students who want to do number theory. There are many high-school programs that teach number theory including PROMYS and Ross programs. Our applicants like number theory because they were exposed to it. During PRIMES you will be exposed to something else and might like it as much.

Question: I found a local professor to work with on a research project. Should I apply to PRIMES?
Answer: PRIMES requires that you devote 10 hours a week to research for a year. It is unrealistic to do two research projects in parallel. Choose one. Working with someone in person may be better than by Skype at PRIMES. Also, usually our mentors are not professors, but rather graduate students. On the other hand, they are MIT grad students and projects are often suggested by professors. Our program is well structured. We guarantee weekly meetings in the Spring, we give extra help with your paper, and we have a conference. It is up to you to decide.

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The Reuleaux Tetrahedron

Why are manhole covers round? The manhole covers are round because the manholes are round. Duh! But the cute mathematical answer is that the round shapes are better than many other shapes because a round cover can’t fall into a round hole. If we assume that the hole is the same shape as the cover but slightly smaller, then it is true that circular covers can’t fall into their holes. But there are many other shapes with this property. They are called the shapes of constant width.

A circle and a Reuleaux triangle

Given the width, the shape with the largest area is not surprisingly a circle. The shape with the smallest area and a given constant width is a Reuleaux Triangle. Here is how to draw a Reuleaux triangle. Draw three points that are equidistant from each other at distance d. Then draw three circles of radius d with the centers at given points. The Reuleaux triangle is the intersection of these three circles.

Can we generalize this to 3d? What would be an analogue of a Reuleaux Triangle in 3d? Of course, it is a Reuleaux Tetrahedron: Take four points at the vertices of a regular tetrahedron; take a sphere at each vertex with the radius equal to the edge of the tetrahedron; intersect the four spheres.

Is this a shape of the constant width? Many people mistakenly think that this is the case. Indeed, if you squeeze the Reuleaux tetrahedron between two planes, one of which touches a vertex and another touches the opposite face of the curvy tetrahedron, then the distance between them is equal to d: the radius of the circle. This might give you the impression that this distance is always d. Not so. If you squeeze the Reuleaux tetrahedron between two planes that touch the opposite curvy edges, the distance between these planes will be slightly more than d. To create a shape of constant width you need to shave off the edges a bit.

Meissner Bodies

Theoretically you can shave the same amount off every edge to get to a surface of constant width. But this is not the cool way to do it. The cool way is to shave a bit more but only from one edge of the pair of opposite edges. You can get two different figures this way: one that has three shaved edges forming a triangle, and the other, where three shaved edges share a vertex. These two bodies are called Meissner bodies and they are conjectured to be shapes of the constant width with the smallest volume.

On the picture I have two copies of a pair of Meissner bodies. The two left ones have three edges that share a vertex shaved off. The very left shape gives a top view of this vertex and the solid next to it has its bottom with holes looking forward. The two shapes on the right show the second Meissner body in two different positions.

I recently discovered a TED-Ed video about manhole covers. It falsely claims that the Reuleaux tetrahedron has constant width. I wrote to TED-Ed, to the author, and posted a comment on the discussion page. There was no reaction. They either should remove the video or have an errata page for it. Knowingly keeping a video with an error that is being viewed by thousands of people is irresponsible.

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Who is Guilty?

I am running a PRIMES-STEP program for middle school students, where we try to do research in mathematics. In the fall of 2015 we decided to study the following topic in logic.

Suppose there is an island where the following four types of people live:

  • Absolute truth-tellers always tell the truth.
  • Partial truth-tellers tell the truth with one exception: if they are guilty, they will say that they are innocent.
  • Absolute liars always lie.
  • Responsible liars lie with one exception: if they are guilty, they will say that they are guilty.

See if you can solve this simple logic puzzle about people on this island.

It is known that exactly one person stole an expensive painting from an apartment. It is also known that only Alice or Bob could have done it. Here are their statements:
Alice: I am guilty. Bob is a truth-teller.
Bob: I am guilty. Alice stole it. Alice is the same type as me.
Who stole the painting and what types are Alice and Bob?

My students and I discovered a lot of interesting things about these four types of people and wrote a paper: Who Is Guilty?. This paper contains 11 cute logic puzzles designed by each of my 11 students.

I envied my students and decided to create two puzzles of my own. You have already solved the one above, so here is another, more difficult, puzzle:

A bank was robbed and a witness said that there was exactly one person who committed the robbery. Three suspects were apprehended. No one else could have participated in the robbery.
Alice: I am innocent. Bob committed the crime. Bob is a truth-teller.
Bob: I am innocent. Alice is guilty. Carol is a different type than me.
Carol: I am innocent. Alice is guilty.
Who robbed the bank and what types are the suspects?

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A River-Crossing Puzzle

I have solved too many puzzles in my life. When I see a new one, my solution is always the intended one. But my students invent other ideas from time to time and teach me to think creatively. For example, I gave them this puzzle:

Two boys wish to cross a river, but there is a single boat that can take only one boy at a time. The boat cannot return on its own; there are no ropes or similar tricks; yet both boys manage to cross the river. How?

Here is what my inventive students came up with:

  • There was another person on the other side of the river who brought the boat back.
  • There was a bridge.
  • The boys can swim.
  • They just wanted to cross the river and come back, so they did it in turns.

And here is my standard solution: They started on different sides of the river.

I gave a talk about thinking inside and outside the box at the Gathering for Gardner conference. I mentioned this puzzle and the inventiveness of my students. After the conference a guy approached me with another answer which is now my favorite:

  • They wait until the river freezes over and walk to the other side.
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The Battle I am Losing

I want the world to be a better place. My contribution is teaching people to think. People who think make better decisions, whether they want to buy a house or vote for a president.

When I started my blog, I posted a lot of puzzles. I was passionate about not posting solutions. I do want people to think, not just consume puzzles. Regrettably, I feel a great push to post solutions. My readers ask about the answers, because they are accustomed to the other websites providing them.

I remember I once bought a metal brainteaser that needed untangling. The solution wasn’t included. Instead, there was a postcard that I needed to sign and send to get a solution. The text that needed my signature was, “I am an idiot. I can’t solve this puzzle.” I struggled with the puzzle for a while, but there was no way I would have signed such a postcard, so I solved it. In a long run I am glad that the brainteaser didn’t provide a solution.

That was a long time ago. Now I can just go on YouTube, where people post solutions to all possible puzzles.

I am not the only one who tries to encourage people to solve puzzles for themselves. Many Internet puzzle pages do not have solutions on the same page as the puzzle. They have a link to a solution. Although it is easy to access the solution, this separation between the puzzle and its solution is an encouragement to think first.

But the times are changing. My biggest newest disappointment is TED-Ed. They have videos with all my favorite puzzles, where you do not need to click to get to the solution. You need to click to STOP the solution from being fed to you. Their video Can you solve the prisoner hat riddle? uses my favorite hat puzzle. (To my knowledge, this puzzle first appeared at the 23-rd All-Russian Mathematical Olympiad in 1997.) Here is the standard version that I like:

A sultan decides to give 100 of his sages a test. He has the sages stand in line, one behind the other, so that the last person in line can see everyone else. The sultan puts either a black or a white hat on each sage. The sages can only see the colors of the hats on all the people in front of them. Then, in any order they want, each sage guesses the color of the hat on his own head. Each hears all previously made guesses, but other than that, the sages cannot speak. Each person who guesses the color wrong will have his head chopped off. The ones who guess correctly go free. The rules of the test are given to them one day before the test, at which point they have a chance to agree on a strategy that will minimize the number of people who die during this test. What should that strategy be?

The video is beautifully done, but sadly the puzzle is dumbed down in two ways. First, they explicitly say that it is possible for all but one person to guess the color and second, that people should start talking from the back of the line. I remember in the past I would give this puzzle to my students and they would initially estimate that half of the people would die. Their eyes would light up when they realized that it’s possible to save way more than half the people. They have another aha! moment when they discover that the sages should start talking from the back to the front. This way each person sees or hears everyone else before announcing their own color. Finally, my students would think about parity, and voilà, they would solve the puzzle.

In the simplified adapted video, there are no longer any discoveries. There is no joy. People consume the solution, without realizing why this puzzle is beautiful and counterintuitive.

Nowadays, I come to class and give a puzzle, but everyone has already heard the puzzle with its solution. How can I train my students to think?

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Late Homework

One of my jobs is giving linear algebra recitations at MIT. The most unpleasant aspect of it is dealing with late homework. Students attempt to submit their homework late for lots of different reasons: a sick parent needing help, stress, a performance at Carnegie Hall, a broken printer, flu, and so on. How do I decide which excuse is sufficient, and which is not? I do not want to be a judge! Moreover, my assumption is that people tell the truth. In the case of linear algebra homework, this assumption is unwise. As soon as students discover that I trust everyone, there’s a sharp increase in the number of sick parents and broken printers. So I have the choice of being either a naive idiot or a suspicious cynic. I do not like either role.

Our linear algebra course often adopts a brilliant approach: We announce that late homework is not allowed for any reason. To compensate for emergencies, we drop everyone’s lowest score. That is, we allow the students to skip one homework out of ten. They are free to use this option for oversleeping the 4 pm deadline. If all their printers work properly and they do not get so sick that they have to skip their homework, they can forgo the last homework. Happily, this relieves me from being a judge.

Or does it? Unfortunately, this policy doesn’t completely resolve the problem. Some students continue trying to push their late homework on me, despite the rules. In order to be fair to other students and to follow the rules, I reject all late homework. The students who badger me nonetheless waste my time and drain my emotions. This is very unpleasant.

From the point of view of those students, such behavior makes sense. They have nothing to lose and they might get some points. There is no way to punish a person who tries to hand in homework late and from time to time they stumble onto a soft instructor who accepts the homework against the official rules. Because such behavior is occasionally rewarded, they continue doing it. I believe that wrong behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. As a responsible adult, I think it is my duty to counteract the rewards of this behavior. But I do not know how.

What should I do? Maybe I should…

  1. Persuade our course leader, or MIT in general, to introduce a punishment for trying to hand in late homework. We might, for example, subtract points from their final score.
  2. Promote the value of honorably following the rules through discussions with the students.
  3. Growl at any student who submits their homework late.
  4. Explain to them what other people think about them, when they do not follow the rules.

Maybe I should just do number 4 right now and explain what I feel. A student who persists in handing in homework late feels to me that s/he is entitled and is better than everyone else, and shows that s/he doesn’t care about the rules and honor. Again, this wastes my time, puts me in a disagreeable position, and reduces my respect for that student.

Earlier I suggested that students don’t have anything to lose by such behavior, but in fact, they do pay a price, even though they may not understand that.

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Magic SET Hypercube Continued

Magic SET Hypercube with two cards flipped over

I already wrote how I build a magic SET hypercube with my students. Every time I do it, I can always come up with a new question for my students. This time I decided to flip over two random cards, as in the picture. My students already know that any two cards can be completed to a set. The goal of this activity is to find the third card in the set without trying to figure out what the flipped-over cards are. Where is the third card in the hypercube?

Sometimes my students figure this out without having an explicit rule. Somehow they intuit it before they know it. But after several tries, they discover the rule. What is the rule?

Another set of questions that I ask my students is related to magic SET squares that are formed by 3 by 3 regions in the hypercube. By definition, each magic SET square has every row, column, and diagonal as a set. But there are four more sets inside a magic SET square. We can call them super and sub-diagonal (anti-diagonal) wrap-arounds. Can you prove that every magic SET square has to have these extra four sets? In addition, can you prove that a magic SET square is always uniquely defined by any three cards that do not form a set, and which are put into places that are not supposed to from a set?

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Meta-Solving Multiple Choice

I explained to my AMSA students the idea of meta-solving multiple choice. Sometimes by looking at the choices without knowing what the problem is, it is possible to guess the correct answer. Suppose your choices are 2k, 2, 2/k, 10k, −2k. What is the most probable answer? There are several ideas to consider.

  • A problem designer considers different potential mistakes and tries to include the answers corresponding to most common mistakes. That means the answers corresponding to the mistakes are variations of the right answer. Thus, the right answer is a common theme in all the answers.
  • A problem designer tries not to allow the students to bypass the solution. So if only one of the choices is negative and the answer is negative, the students do not need to calculate the exact answer, they just need to see that it’s negative. That means the right answer cannot be the odd one out.

Both these considerations suggest a rule of thumb: the answers that are odd ones out are probably wrong. In the given example (2k, 2, 2/k, 10k, —2k), the second choice is an odd one out because it’s the only one that does not contain k. The third choice is an odd one out because it’s the only one in which we divide by k. The fourth choice is an odd one out because it’s the only one with 10 instead of 2. The last one is an odd one out because of the minus sign. Thus the most probable answer is 2k.

So I explained these ideas to my students and gave them a quiz, in which I took the 2003 AMC 10A test, but only gave them the choices without the problems. I was hoping they would do better than randomly guessing.

Luckily for me, I have six classes in a row doing the same thing, so I can make adjustments as I go along. Looking at the results of the first two groups of students, I discovered that they were worse than random. What was going on?

I took a closer look, and what do you know? Nobody marked the first or the last choice. The answers are in an increasing order, so the first is the smallest and the last is the largest. So these two numbers are odd ones out, in a way.

It is a good idea to consider 189 as an odd one out in the list 1, 2, 4, 5, 189. In many other cases, the fact that the number is either the smallest or largest is insufficient reason to consider it as the odd one out. For example, there is no reason to consider 1 to be an odd one out in the list 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. And the designers of AMC are good: a lot of problems have an arithmetic progression as a list of choices, where none of the numbers are obviously odd ones out.

To correct the situation of worse than random results, I discussed it with my students in my next classes. Problem designers cannot have a tradition in which the first answer is never the correct answer. If such a tradition existed, and people knew about it, that knowledge would help them guess. So the first answer should be correct approximately five times, which is a fifth of the total number of questions (25).

And we came up with a strategy. Use the odd one out method except for arithmetic progressions. Then add the choices to balance out the total number of the first answers, the second answers, etc.

That method worked. In my next four classes my students were better than random.

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