Archive for the ‘Books and Movies Reviews’ Category.

Smoking Vampires

 BuffyI love the TV series of Angel and of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I enjoy the excitement of saving the world every 42 minutes. But as a scientist I keep asking myself a lot of questions.

Where do vampires take their energy from? Usually oxygen is the fuel for the muscles of living organisms, but vampires do not breathe. Vampires are not living organisms, and yet they have to get their energy from somewhere.

When you kill a vampire, it turns to dust. If organisms are 60% water, then a 200-pound vampire should generate 80 pounds of dust. So why, in the series, do you get just a little puff of dust whenever someone plunges a stake into a vampire? Plus 120 pounds of water apparently evaporates instantly during staking. Can someone who is less lazy than me please calculate the energy needed to evaporate 120 pounds of water in one second? Because my first reaction is that you would need an explosion, not just one stab with Buffy’s stake.

All these unscientific elements do not actually bother me that much. What does bother me are inconsistencies in logic. For example, at the end of Season One of Buffy, Angel refuses to give Buffy CPR, claiming that as a vampire he can’t breathe. But then how can Spike and other vampires smoke? If they can smoke that means they are capable of inhaling and exhaling. Not to mention that these vampires talk: wouldn’t they need an airflow through their throats to produce sounds?

It would make more sense for the show to state that vampires do not need to breathe, but are nonetheless capable of inhaling and exhaling. So Angel should have given Buffy CPR. It would have created a great plot twist: Angel saves Buffy at the end of Season One, only for her to send him to the hell dimension at the end of Season Two.

Back to breathing. I remember a scene in “Bring On the Night” in which Spike was tortured by Turok-Han holding his head in water. But if Spike can’t breathe, why is this torture?

Another thing that bothers me in the series is not related to what happens but to what doesn’t happen. For example, vampires do not have reflections. So I don’t understand why every vampire-aware person didn’t install a mirror on the front door of their house to check for reflections before inviting anyone in.

Also, it looks like producers do not care about backwards compatibility. Later in the series we get to know that vampires are cold. Watch the first season of Buffy with that knowledge. In the very first episode, Darla is holding hands with her victim, but he doesn’t notice that she is cold. Later Buffy kisses Angel, before she knows that he is a vampire, and she doesn’t notice that he’s cold either. Unfortunately, the series also isn’t forward compatible. In the second season of Angel in the episode “Disharmony”, when we already know that vampires are cold, Harmony is trying to reconnect with Cordelia. They hug and touch each other. Such an experienced demon fighter as Cordelia should have noticed that Harmony is cold and, therefore, dead.

Finally, let’s look at Spike in the last season of Angel. Spike is non-corporeal for a part of the season; we see him going through walls and standing in the middle of a desk. Yet, one time we see him sitting on a couch talking to Angel. In addition, he can take the stairs. He can go through the elevator wall to ride in an elevator instead of falling down through its floor. And what about floors? Why isn’t he falling through floors? Some friends of mine said that we can assume that floors are made from stronger materials. But, if there is a material that can prevent Spike from penetrating it, they ought to use this material to make a weapon for him.

I’ve never been involved in making a show, but these producers clearly need help. Perhaps they should hire a mathematician like me with an eye for detail to prevent so many goofs.


An Algebra Text Book

Introduction to AlgebraI am usually disappointed with American math text books. I have had an underwhelming experience with them. Often I open a book and in the next 15 minutes, I find a mistake, a typo, a misguided explanation, sloppiness, a misconception or some other annoyance.

I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the book Introduction to Algebra by Richard Rusczyk. I didn’t find any flaws in it — not in the first 15 minutes, and not even in the first hour. In fact, having used the book many times I have never found any mistakes. Not even a typo. This was disturbing. Is Richard Rusczyk human? It was such an unusual experience with an American math book, that I decided to deliberately look for a typo or a mistake. After half a year of light usage, I finally found something.

Look at problem 7.3.1.

Five chickens can lay 10 eggs in 20 days. How long does it take 18 chickens to lay 100 eggs?

There is nothing wrong with this problem. But the book is accompanied by the Introduction to Algebra Solutions Manual in which I found the following solution, that I’ve shortened for you:

The number of eggs is jointly proportional to the number of chickens and the amount of time. One chicken lays one egg in 10 days. Hence, 18 chickens will lay 100 eggs in 1000/18 days, which is slightly more than 55 and a half days.

What is wrong with this solution? Richard Rusczyk is human after all.

I like this book for its amazing accuracy and clean explanations. There are also a lot of diverse problems in terms of difficulty and ideas. Richard Rusczyk has good taste. Many of the problems are from different competitions and require inventiveness. I like that there are a lot of challenge problems that go beyond the boring parts of algebra. Also, I like that important points of algebra are chosen wisely and are emphasized.

This book might not be for everyone. It doesn’t have pretty pictures. It doesn’t have color at all. This is not a flaw for a math book. The book concentrates on ideas and problems, not entertainment. So if you’re looking for math entertainment, you’ll find it on my blog. For solid study, try Richard Rusczyk’s books.


Raymond Smullyan’s Magic Trick

Raymond SmullyanI love Raymond Smullyan’s books, especially the trick puzzles he includes. The first time I met him in person, he played a trick on me.

This happened at the Gathering for Gardner 8. We were introduced and then later that day, the conference participants were treated to a dinner event that included a magic show. In one evening I saw more close-up magic tricks than I had in my whole life. This left me lightheaded, doubting physics and my whole scientific outlook on life.

Afterwards, Raymond Smullyan joined me in the elevator. “Do you want to see a magic trick?” he asked. “I bet I can kiss you without touching you.” I was caught off guard. At that moment I believed anything was possible. I agreed to the bet.

He asked me to close my eyes, kissed me on the cheek and laughed, “I lost.”


Why Modulo 11?

The book An Introduction to Diophantine Equations by Titu Andreescu and Dorin Andrica is targeted at people preparing for USAMO and IMO. It contains a lot of problems on Diophantine equations from math Olympiads used in various math Olympiads all over the world.

The first chapter discusses several methods for solving Diophantine equations: decomposition, using inequalities, using parameters, modular arithmetic, induction, infinite descent, and other miscellaneous ideas. Each sub-chapter starts with a short description of the method, accompanied by several solutions to sample problems. At the end of each sub-chapter there are a plethora of exercise problems.

The second and the third chapters are more theoretical. The former discusses some classical equations and the latter looks at Pell’s equation. These two chapters also contain problems, but the bulk of the chapters is devoted to basic theory that is essential to an understanding of Diophantine equations.

For those who are training for the Olympiads, this is an important book to own, not only because there are few other books on the subject, but because it provides so many useful problems.

I’ve long complained that most training books for math competitions leave out any discussion of how we choose a method by just looking at a problem. Andreescu and Andrica didn’t fill that gap with this book.

Perhaps in their next book they will point out clues that indicate that a particular problem might be solved by the parametric method. And explain which types of problems are best solved with induction. Let them challenge students to find those clues in a problem that help us to judge which method might be most promising, instead of randomly trying one method after another. Let me give you a sample problem from the book, which originated at the Balkan Mathematical Olympiad:

Prove that the equation x5 – y2 = 4 has no solutions in integers.

The solution is to take the equation modulo 11, and see that it is impossible.

Is there a reason to start with the modular arithmetic method and not with other methods? If we use modular arithmetic, do we recognize why it’s best to start with 11? I’m convinced that this problem has sufficient clues to suggest starting with checking this equation modulo 11.

I wonder if you, my readers, agree with me. If so, can you explain which hints in the problem lead to taking the equation modulo 11? I believe it should be a part of competition training to learn to identify clues that suggest that one direction might be preferable to the others.


Geometric Transformations

YaglomIn my days of competing in math, I met guys who could solve any geometry problem by using coordinates: first they would assign variables to represent coordinates of different points, then they would write and solve a set of equations. It seemed so boring. Besides, this approach doesn’t provide us with any new insight into geometry.

I find geometric solutions to geometry problems much more interesting than algebraic solutions. The geometric solutions that use geometric transformations are often the shortest and the most beautiful.

I.M. Yaglom wrote a great trilogy called The Geometric Transformations. The first book of this trilogy discusses translations, rotations and reflections. The second one — looks at similarity transformations, and the third one talks about affine and projective transformations. A lot of beautiful problems with their solutions are scattered throughout these books. They include all my favorite problems related to transformations.

I think geometry is the weakest link for the USA math team. So we have to borrow the best geometry books from other countries. This trilogy was translated from Russian and Russians are known for their strong tradition of excellence in teaching geometry.

Below you can find sample problems from Geometric Transformations 1, Geometric Transformations 2 and Geometric Transformations 3 — not necessarily in this order.

Problem 1. Let A be a point outside a circle S. Using only a straightedge, draw the tangents from A to S.

Problem 2. At what point should a bridge be built across a river separating two towns A and B (see figure) in order that the path connecting the towns be as short as possible? The banks of the river are assumed to be parallel straight lines, and the bridge is assumed to be perpendicular to the river.


Problem 3. Suppose you have two lines drawn on a piece of paper. The intersection point A of the two lines is unreachable: it is outside the paper. Using a ruler and a compass, draw a line through a given point M such that, were the paper bigger, point A would belong to the continuation of the line.



MythematicsIn the book “Mythematics: Solving the Twelve Labors of Hercules” Michael Huber adds details to Hercules’ labors so that in order that he can do each task, you need to help Hercules solve two or three math problems. For example, to defeat the Nemean Lion Hercules needs to solve the problem “Zeus Makes a Deal”, which is a Greek-myth version of the Monty Hall problem.

The problems in Mythematics are quite advanced. They range in topic from algebra, geometry and probability to differential equations and integral calculus. Plus, as a reward for helping Hercules, Huber gives you variations on Sudoku puzzles.

Solving some nice math problems might not be the only reason for people to buy this book. Here are some other reasons:

  • Greek myth lovers may find extra motivation to do mathematics.
  • People will earn that extra gratification of imagining that they are doing good deeds while solving math puzzles.
  • Puzzle lovers can learn or refresh their knowledge of Hercules’ labors.

I like Huber’s approach. Future possibilities for more books are endless. Let’s write new math problems based on Harry Potter, Batman, the Bible or, maybe, The Joy of Sex.


Heard on the Street

Heard on the StreetI bought the book Heard on The Street: Quantitative Questions from Wall Street Job Interviews” by Timothy Falcon Crack several years ago when I was looking for a job and felt that working in finance was a possibility. Despite having bought it simply to prepare for employment interviews, I actually enjoyed the math problems in the book.

The book has problems in logic, probability, statistics and finance, as well as a very useful chapter of general interview questions. If you’re interested in buying this book, I should mention that some questions require calculus and knowledge of financial terms.

I love the author’s taste in problems, and here are some sample questions from the book.

Question 2.7: How many degrees (if any) are there in the angle between the hour and minute hands of a clock when the time is a quarter past three?

Question 5.1.14: Welcome to your interview. Sit in this chair. Excuse me while I tie your arms and legs to the chair. Thank you. Now we are going to play “Russian roulette.” I have a revolver with six empty chambers. Watch me as I load the weapon with two contiguous rounds (i.e., two bullets side-by-side in the cylindrical barrel). Watch me as I spin the barrel. I am putting the gun against your head. Close your eyes while I pull the trigger. This is your lucky day: you are still alive! Our game differs from regular Russian roulette because I am not going to add any bullets to the barrel before we continue, and I am not going to give you the gun.
My question for you: I am going to shoot at you once more before we talk about your résumé. Do you want me to spin the barrel once more, or should I just shoot?

Question 6.1.16: Tell me something you tried but ended up quitting on.

I can tell you what I would have answered to the last question: I tried smoking, but ended up quitting.


Math without Breaking a Nail

Math Doesn't SuckI bought the book Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail by Danica McKellar because I couldn’t resist the title. Sometimes this book reads like a fashion magazine for girls: celebrities, shopping, diet, love, shoes, boyfriends. At the same time it covers elementary math: fractions, percents and word problems.

You can apply math to anything in life. Certainly you can apply it to fashion and shoes. I liked the parallel between shoes and fractions that Danica used. She compared improper fractions to tennis shoes and mixed numbers to high heels. It is much easier to work with improper fractions, but mixed numbers are far more presentable.

Danica is trying to break the stereotype that girls are not good at math by feeding all the other stereotypes about girls. If you are a typical American girl who hates math and missed some math basics, this book is for you. If you want to discover whether the stars are on your side when you are learning math, the book even includes a math horoscope.


Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes

Plato and a PlatypusI got a funny book for a gift called Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. I couldn’t stop reading it. This book is an overview, and thus not very deep, but I enjoyed being reminded of philosophical concepts I’ve long since forgotten. Besides, I collect math jokes and many philosophical jokes qualify as mathy ones.

For example, self-referencing jokes:

Relativity — this term means different things to different people.

I especially liked jokes related to logic:

If a man tries to fail and succeeds, which did he do?

I knew most of the jokes, but here’s a math joke I never heard before:

Salesman: “Ma’am, this vacuum cleaner will cut your work in half.”
Customer: “Terrific! Give me two of them.”


The Symmetries of Things

Building a musnub cubeFinishedThe Symmetries of ThingsThe Symmetries of Things by John H. Conway, Heidi Burgiel, and Chaim Goodman-Strauss is out. It is a beautiful edition with great pictures.

The first chapter is very nicely written and might be recommended to high school and undergraduate students. It covers symmetries of finite and infinite 2D objects.

The second chapter adds color to the theory. For beautiful colorful pictures with symmetry, there are two symmetry groups: the group that preserves the picture while ignoring its coloring and the group that preserves the picture while respecting its coloring. The latter group is a subgroup of a former group. This second chapter discusses all possible ways to symmetrically color a symmetric 2D picture. The chapter then continues with a discussion of group theory. This chapter is much more difficult to read than the first chapter, as it uses a lot of notations. The pictures are still beautiful, though.

The third chapter is even more difficult to read and the notations become even heavier. This chapter discusses hyperbolic groups and symmetries of objects in the hyperbolic space. Then the chapter moves into 3D and 4D. I guess that some parts of the second and the third chapters are not meant for light reading; they should be considered more as reference materials.

Here are pictures of a musnub cube (multiplied snub cube), built by John H. Conway. It is an infinite Archimedean polyhedron. The description of it is on page 338 and the diagram is on page 339 of the book. This object was glued together from stars and squares. Each corner of the square is glued to a point of one star and to an inside corner of another star. Mathematically, a star is not a regular polygon. If you look at stars with your mathematical eye, each star in the picture is not just a star, but rather the union of a regular hexagon with 6 regular triangles. That means the list of the face sizes around each vertex of a musnub cube officially is represented as

The second picture shows a finished musnub cube. You can’t really finish building an infinite structure. Right? It is finished in the sense that John Conway finished doing what he was planning to do: to construct a part of a musnub cube inside a regular triangular pyramid.

Did I mention that I like the pictures in The Symmetries of Things?