Archive for the ‘Math in Life’ Category.

This is Not a Consultation

In my essays The Oral Exam and A Math Exam’s Hidden Agenda, I gave some examples of math problems that were used during the entrance exams to Moscow State University. The problems were designed to prevent Jewish and other “undesirable” students from studying at the University. My readers might have supposed that an occasional bright student could, by solving all the problems, get in. Here is the story of my dear friend Mikhail (Misha) Lyubich; it shows that being extremely bright was not enough.

Misha passed the first three exams and was facing his last exam: oral physics. He answered all the questions. None of his answers were accepted: all of them were declared wrong. Misha insisted that he was right and requested that the examiners explain themselves. Every time their reply was the same:

This is not a consultation, it’s an exam.

Misha failed the exam. The solution to the last problem was a simple picture: a document that seemed to be impossible to deny, so Misha decided that he had grounds for an appeal. The person in charge denied the appeal. When Misha requested an explanation, can you guess the answer?

This is not a consultation, it’s an appeal.

Misha ended up studying at Kharkov State University. Now he is a professor at Stony Brook and the director of the Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Stony Brook.


The Rings of Power

My son Alexey taught me to always plug unused power strips into themselves, so that we can call them “The Rings of Power.” These are my Borromean Rings of Power:

Borromean Rings of Power


Star Trek TNG Science Quiz

Question 1. Holodeck. After a long and difficult assignment on an uninhabited planet, Commander Riker went to Holodeck III to unwind. While there he ate three cheeseburgers generated by the holodeck program. Is Commander Riker hungry after he ends the program?

Question 2. Relativity. We know that speed in space is relative, there is no absolute speed. What does Captain Picard mean when he orders a “full stop”?

Question 3. The Replicator. Captain Picard approached a replicator and requested: “Tea, Earl Grey. Hot.” The replicator immediately created a glass with hot Earl Grey tea. How much energy would the Enterprise have saved in seven years if they used a dish-washing machine, rather than creating glasses from atoms each time and dissolving them afterwards?

Question 4. Contractions. Commander Data hasn’t mastered contractions in English speech. In what year do you think the first program was written to convert formal English into English with contractions?

Question 5. Data. Commander Data is fully functional and absolutely superior to a vibrator. Given that there are more than a thousand people on board the Enterprise, estimate how many times a year on average Data will receive sexual requests.

The next two questions are related to particular episodes.

Question 6. “Up The Long Ladder”. Mariposans reproduce by cloning. Why do all the identical sets of clones appear to be the same age? Does it mean that upon the reproduction the clone is the age of the host? If so, they all should be 300 years old.

Mariposans steal sample DNA from Commander Riker and Dr. Pulaski. If Riker and Pulaski didn’t destroy their maturing clones what age would those clones be? Would they know how much two plus two is when they awaken? If clones awaken as adults, what is their life span?

Question 7. “Force of Nature”. Serova sacrifices herself to save her world from the effects of warp drive, but in doing so, she herself creates the rift that will destroy her world. Explain the logic.


Too Good at Spider Solitaire

Have you ever been punished for being too good at spider solitaire? I mean, have you ever been stuck because you collected too many suits? Many versions of the game don’t allow you to deal from the deck if you have empty columns, nor do they allow you to get back a completed suit. If the number of cards left on the table in the middle of the game is less than ten — the number of columns — you are stuck. I always wondered what the probability is of being stuck. This probability is difficult to calculate because it depends on your strategy. So I invented a boring version of spider solitaire for the sake of creating a math problem. Here it goes:

You start with two full decks of 104 cards. Initially you take 54 cards. At each turn you take all full suits out of your hand. If you have less than ten cards left in your hand, you are stuck. If not, take ten more cards from the leftover deck and continue. What is the probability that you can be stuck during this game?

Let us simplify the game even more by playing the easy level of the boring spider solitaire in which you have only spades. So you have a total of eight full suits of spades. I leave it to my readers to calculate the total probability of being stuck. Here I would like to estimate the easiest case: the probability of being stuck before the last deal.

There are ten cards left in the deck. For you to be stuck, they all should have a different value. The total number of ways to choose ten cards is 104 choose 10. To calculate the number of ways in which these ten cards have different values we need to choose these ten values in 13 choose 10 ways, then multiply by the number of ways each card of a given value can be taken from the deck: 810. The probability is about 0.0117655.

I will leave it to my readers to calculate the probability of being stuck before the last deal at the medium level: when you play two suits, hearts and spades.

No, I will not tell you how many times I played spider solitaire.


Broom Bridge

Broom BridgeIn August I visited my son Alexey Radul, who currently works at the Hamilton Institute in Maynooth, Ireland. One of the greatest Irish attractions, Broom Bridge, is located there. It’s a bridge over the railroad that connects Maynooth and Dublin. One day in 1843, while walking over the bridge, Sir William Rowan Hamilton had a revelation. He understood how the formulae for quaternions should be written. He scratched them into a stone of the bridge. Now the bridge has a plaque commemorating this event. The plaque contains his formulae. I don’t remember ever seeing a plaque with math, so naturally I rushed off to make my pilgrimage to Broom Bridge.

Quaternions have very pronounced sentimental value for me, since my first research was related to them. Let’s consider a simple graph. We can construct an algebra associated with this graph in the following way. For each vertex we have a generator of the algebra. In addition we have some relations. Each generator squared is equal to −1. If two vertices are connected the corresponding generators anti-commute, and they commute otherwise. The simplest non-commutative algebra associated with a graph corresponds to a graph with two vertices and one edge. If we call the generators i and j, then the we get the relations: i2 = j2 = −1, and ij = −ji. I we denote ij as k, the algebra as a vector space has dimension 4 and a basis: 1, i, j, k. These are exactly the quaternions. In my undergraduate research I studied such algebras related to Dynkin diagrams. Thirty years later I came back to them in my paper Clifford Algebras and Graphs. But I digress.

I was walking on the bridge hoping that like Hamilton I would come up with a new formula. Instead, I was looking around wondering why the Broombridge Station didn’t have a ticket office. I already had my ticket, but I was curious how other people would get theirs. I asked a girl standing on the platform where to buy tickets. She said that there is no way to buy tickets there, so she sometimes rides without a ticket. The fine for not having tickets is very high in Ireland, so I expressed my surprised. She told me that she just says that she is from the town of Broombridge if she is asked to present her ticket.

Being a Russian I started scheming: obviously people can save money by buying tickets to Broombridge and continuing without a ticket wherever they need to go. If the tickets are checked, they can claim that they are traveling from Broombridge. Clearly Ireland hasn’t been blessed with very many Russians visitors.


Big Numbers

If you buy one Mega Millions ticket, your probability of hitting the jackpot is one in 175,000,000. For all practical purposes it is zero. When I give my talk on lotteries, there is always someone in the audience who would argue that “but someone is winning and so can I.” The fact that someone is winning depends on the number of people buying tickets. It is difficult to visualize the large number of people buying tickets and the miniscule odds of winning. For example, the probability of you dying from an impact with a meteorite is larger than the odds of winning the jackpot.

I receive a lot of emails from strangers asking me to advertise their websites on my blog. I always check out their websites and I often find them either unrelated to math or boring. That is why I was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to write about a useful website: Understanding Big Numbers. In each post Liam Gray takes a big number and puts it into some perspective. For example, he estimates Mark Zuckerberg’s Hourly Wage by dividing Mark’s estimated wealth in 2011 by the number of hours Mark might have worked on Facebook. Facebook has existed for 7 years and, assuming 10 hours of work a day every day, we get 25,000 work hours. That is more than half a million dollars an hour.

Imagine someone calls Mark Zuckerberg and asks to talk to him for a minute. Mark wouldn’t be out of line to request nine thousand dollars for that. Lucky am I, that I do not need to talk to Mark Zuckerberg.


Finchley Central

by Sergei Bernstein, Tanya Khovanova and Alexey Radul

Here is a game that John Conway popularizes. It is called “Finchley Central,” which is a station of the London Underground. The game goes as follows. Alice and Bob take turns naming London Underground stations, in any order. The first person to say “Finchley Central” wins.

Alice, who starts, can just name the station. But then Bob will give her a look. It is not fun to win a game on the first turn. To avoid appearing rude, Alice will not start with “Finchley Central.” It would be impolite of Bob to take advantage of Alice’s generosity, so he also won’t say “Finchley Central.” The game might continue like this for a while.

The game has a hidden agenda: winning it after 10 turns will supply many more bragging rights than winning it right away would. We can make this hidden agenda explicit by assigning a value to the honor of continuing the game. For example, suppose every time Alice (or Bob) says a station, she puts one dollar into the pile. The person who says “Finchley Central” first takes all the money from the pile. The implicit goal of the game becomes explicit: you want to say “Finchley Central” right before your opponent says it.

By the way, Finchley Central is not actually a particularly central station — it is the station between Finchley East and Finchley West, serving the relatively small place called Finchley; and is not even under ground. It has the distinction of being one of the oldest still-standing pieces of London Underground physical plant, because plans to rebuild it were interrupted on account of World War II and never resumed. It also has the distinction of having served the home of the guy (an employee of the Underground system) who had the brilliant idea that since the Underground was, indeed, mostly under ground, the right way to map it was topologically, rather than geographically.

Here is another way to model the game. Alice writes an odd number on a piece of paper, and Bob writes an even number. When they compare, the person who wrote a smaller number wins that number of dollars. This version loses the psychological aspect. When you take turns, it is to your advantage to read the non-verbal signs of your opponent to see when s/he is getting ready to drop the bomb.

People play this game in real life. Here are Alice and Bob looking at the last piece of a mouth-watering Tiramisu:

  • Alice: You look like you want this piece of cake. Why don’t you take it?
  • Bob: You seem to like it too. Please, go ahead.
  • Alice: I am fine. You take it.
  • Bob: You have it; I insist.

At this point Alice wins with some extra brownie points for being polite.

We can model the honor points differently. We can say you will be the most proud of the game if you name the station write before you opponent is about to do so. Then the model is: everyone writes down their next move; if your move is Finchley Central when your opponent’s next move was going to be Finchley Central, then you win.

Here we suggest another game that we call “Reverse Finchley Central.” Alice and Bob name London Underground stations in turns and the person who names “Finchley Central” first loses. This game can continue until all the stations are exhausted, if the players are forbidden to repeat them, or it can continue indefinitely otherwise. But this is quite tiresome. The hidden agenda would be to not waste too much time. Clearly the person who values time less will win.

But let us model this game. We want to fix the value of winning. Let us set aside ten dollars for the winner. On their turn, each player puts one dollar into the pile, and as soon as one of the players says “Finchley Central,” the other one wins and takes the ten dollars. The pile goes to charity. Alternatively, Alice and Bob can each write a number. The person with the larger number wins the prize, while both have to pay the smaller number to charity.

We play this game with our parents. They nag us to do the dishes. We resist. Then they give up and do the dishes themselves. They lose, but we all pay with our nerves for nagging or being nagged at. Later our parents get their revenge when we have children of our own.


I Was Attacked

Not personally. Someone hacked into my website.

I would like to thank my readers Qiaochu Yuan, Mark Rudkin, “ano” and Paul who alerted me to the problem. Viewers who were using the Google Chrome browser and who tried to visit my website got this message: “This site contains content from, a site known to distribute malware.”

It took me some time to figure out what was going on. It appears that on June 19 someone from hacked into my hosting account and added a script to all my html files and to my blog header. It seems that the script was dormant and wasn’t yet doing bad things.

As soon as I grasped what was going on, I replaced all the affected files.

I have had my website for many years without changing my hosting password. Unfortunately, passwords, not dissimilar to humans, have this annoying tendency to become weaker with age. I wasn’t paying attention to the declining strength of my password and so I was punished.

Now I have fixed the website and my new password is: qwP35q2054uWiedfj052!@#$%.

Just kidding.


Tell Time Looking at the Night Sky

John Conway taught me how to tell time at night. But first I need to explain the notions of the “time in the sky” and the “time in the year.”

The clock in the sky. Look at Polaris and treat it as the center of a clock. The up direction corresponds to 12:00. Now we need to find a hand. If you find Polaris the way I do, first you locate the Big Dipper. Then you draw a line through the two stars that are furthest away from the Big Dipper’s handle. The line passes through Polaris and is your “hour” hand. Now you can read the time in the sky.

The hand of the clock in the sky makes a full rotation in approximately 24 hours. So if you stare at the sky for a long time, you can calculate the time you spent staring. Keep in mind that the hand in the sky clock is twice as slow as the hour hand, and it turns counter-clockwise. So to figure out how long you’re looking into the sky, take the sky-time when you start staring, subtract the sky-time when you stop staring and multiply the result by 2.

To calculate the absolute time, we need to adjust for the day in the year.

The clock in the year. A year has twelve months and a clock has twelve hours. How convenient. You can treat each month as one hour. In addition as a month has about 30 days and an hour has exactly 60 minutes, we should count a day as two minutes. Thus, January 25 is 1:50.

Fact: on March 7th at midnight the clock in the sky shows 12:00. March 7th corresponds to 3:15. So to calculate the solar time you need to add up the time in the sky and the time in the year and multiply it by 2. Then subtracting the result from 6:30, which is twice 3:15, you get the solar time.

You are almost ready. You might need to adjust for daylight savings time or for peculiarities of your time zone.

This time formula is not very precise. But if you are looking into the sky and you do not have your watch or cell phone with you, you probably do not need to know the time precisely.


A Nerd’s Way to Walk Up the Stairs

The last time I talked to John H. Conway, he taught me to walk up the stairs. It’s not that I didn’t know how to do that, but he reminded me that a nerd’s goal in climbing the steps is to establish the number of steps at the end of the flight. Since it is boring to just count the stairs, we’re lucky to have John’s fun system.

His invention is simple. Your steps should be in a cycle: short, long, long. Long in this case means a double step. Thus, you will cover five stairs in one short-long-long cycle. In addition, you should always start the first cycle on the same foot. Suppose you start on the left foot, then after two cycles you are back on the left foot, having covered ten stairs. While you are walking the stairs in this way, it is clear where you are in the cycle. By the end of the staircase, you will know the number of stairs modulo ten. Usually there are not a lot of stairs in a staircase, so you can easily estimate the total if you know the last digit of that number.

I guess I am not a true nerd. I have lived in my apartment for eight years and have never bothered to count the number of steps. That is, until now. Having climbed my staircase using John’s method, I now know that the ominous total is 13. Oh dear.