Archive for the ‘Math Education’ Category.

Arnold’s Advice

I wrote a lot about how during entrance tests for Moscow State University, the examiners were giving Jewish and other undesirable students special (e.g. more difficult) questions during the oral exams. (See, for example, our paper Jewish Problems with Alexey Radul.) Not all examiners agreed to do this. So the administration made sure that there were different exam rooms: brutal rooms with compliant examiners torturing students with difficult questions, and normal rooms with normal examiners testing preapproved students. The administration also had other methods. One of them is the topic of this essay.

The math department of Moscow State University had four entrance exams. The first was a written math test consisting of three trivial problems, a very difficult one, and a brutally challenging one. At the end, I will show you a sample: a trivial problem and a very difficult one from 1976, my entrance year.

What was the point of such vast variation in difficulty, you may ask? There were two reasons.

But first, let me explain some entrance rules. The exam was scored according to the number of solved problems. A score of two or less was a failing score. People with such scores would be disqualified from the next exam. Any applicant with a smidge of mathematical intelligence would be able to solve all three trivial problems. Almost all applicants who qualified for the next test would have the same score of three on the first test, as they wouldn’t be able to solve the last two problems. Thus, mathematical geniuses and people who barely made the cut got the same score.

There was another rule. Officially, people with a gold medal from their high school (roughly equivalent to a valedictorian) could be accepted immediately if they scored 5 on the first exam. So one of the administrative goals was to prevent anyone getting a 5, thus, blocking Jewish applicants from sneaking in after the first exam.

Another goal was to have all vaguely qualified people get the same score. The same goal applied to other exams. After the four admission exams, the passing score, say X, was announced. A few people with a score higher than X were immediately accepted. Then there were hundreds of applicants with a score of X, way more than the quota of people the department was planning to accept. An official rule allowed the math department to pick and choose whoever they wanted from everyone who scored X.

I heard a speech by the famous Russian mathematician, Vladimir Arnold, directed at decent examiners who tested “approved” students at the oral math exam, which was the second admissions exam. His suggestion was brilliant and simple. If the students are good and belong in the department, give them an excellent grade of 5. If not, give them a failing grade of 2. Arnold’s plan boosted the chances of good students doing better than the cutoff passing score X and removed mediocre students from the competition. His idea was not only brilliant and simple but also courageous: he was risking his career by trying to fight the system.

I never experienced the entrance exams firsthand. By ministry order, as a member of the USSR IMO team, I was accepted without taking any exams. I already wrote an essay, A Hole for Jews, about how getting on the IMO team was the only way for Jewish students to get into the Moscow State University, and how the University tried to block them.

But I still looked at the entrance exam problems I would have had to solve to get in. The last two problems scared me. Now I found them again online (in Russian) at: the 1976 entrance test. The trivial problem below is standard and mechanical, while the other problem still looks scary.

Trivial problem. Solve for x:

1976 Mekhmat Entrance Test

Solution. We were drilled in school to solve these types of problems, so this one was trivial. First, make a substitution: y = 3x. This leads to an equation: (2y – 1)(y – 3)/(y2 – 2)(y – 1) ≤ 0. From this we get ranges for y: (-∞, -√2], [1/2,1], [√2, 3]. The last step is to take a logarithm.

Very difficult problem. Three spheres are tangent to plane P and to each other. Two of the spheres are the same size. The apex of a circular cone is on P, and the cone’s axis is perpendicular to the plane P. All three spheres are outside the cone and tangent to it. Find the cosine of the angle between the cone’s generatrix and the plane P, if one of the angles of the triangle formed by the intersection points of the spheres and the cone is 150 degrees.


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Already or Have

I stumbled upon one of Smullyan’s puzzle on Facebook, in Russian. I couldn’t find the original text, so I just translated it back for my students.

Puzzle. You are on an island where only truth-tellers and liars live. The truth-tellers always tell the truth, and the liars always lie. You meet an islander who sits with you for a long time, then says, “I already said this sentence.” Is he a truth-teller or a liar?

I expected the following solution. If this islander is a truth-teller, then there should have been a time when he said, for the first time, “I already said this sentence.” But this would create a contradiction.

However, my students used this puzzle as an opportunity to teach me some intricacies of the English language. They explained to me the ambiguities of my translation. Here is a shortened and lightly edited quote from one of them:

There are two different linguistic opinions that give different answers to this problem. The first is that the truth of a statement is decided at the moment it starts to be delivered: in this case, when the islander starts saying his statement. With this interpretation, for the statement to be true, he had to have said the sentence before, and for that to be true, he had to have said it even before that, and this continues indefinitely. Clearly, he cannot have been alive forever, so he has to be a liar.
The other opinion is that the verity of a statement is decided at the exact conclusion of its deliverance. Then, when the islander finishes saying his sentence, its truth is judged, and he has at that same instant “already” said the sentence, so he is telling the truth. By this interpretation, the islander is a truth-teller.

Another student had a different brilliant idea. Depending on the islander’s intonation, it is possible that he says, “I already said ‘this sentence’.” In that case, there are no self-referencing sentences, and the islander could be either a truth-teller or a liar.

I consulted my best English consultant: my son, Alexey, and here is his reply. “The basic answer is that neither truth nor semantic meaning are absolute, and edge cases will be judged differently by different observers. A sentence whose truth is time-dependent on the same scale as the duration of uttering the sentence is clearly an edge case. That’s why mathematicians intentionally try to eliminate ambiguity from their communication.”

He suggested the following fix for the puzzle’s translation.

Fixed puzzle. You meet an islander who says, “I have said this sentence before.” Is he a truth-teller or a liar?

Alexey didn’t stop at fixes and suggested the following bonus puzzles.

Bonus puzzle 1. You meet an islander who says, “I will have said this sentence.” Is he a truth-teller or a liar?

Bonus puzzle 2. You meet an islander who says, “I will say this sentence again.” Is he a truth-teller or a liar?

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Fun with Latin Squares

Last year, our junior PRIMES STEP group studied Latin squares. We invented a lot of different types of Latin squares and wrote a paper about it, Fun with Latin Squares. Recall that a Latin square is an n by n table containing numbers 1 through n in every cell, so that every number occurs once in each row and column. In this post, I want to talk about anti-chiece Latin squares.

First, what’s a chiece? A chiece is a portmanteau word made out of two words, chess and piece, and, not surprisingly, it means a chess piece. Given a chiece, an anti-chiece Latin square is a Latin square such that any two cells, where our chiece can move from one cell to the other, according to the rules of chess, can’t contain the same number. Let’s see what this means.

Let’s start with rooks, which move along rows and columns. An anti-rook Latin square can’t have the same numbers repeating in any one row or column. Ha, anti-rook Latin squares are just Latin squares. Anti-bishop and anti-queen Latin squares can’t have the same numbers repeating on any diagonal.

Now, here is a picture of an anti-knight Latin square in which no two identical numbers are a knight’s move apart. This particular Latin square also forms a mini-Sudoku: not only does each row and column, but also each 2 by 2 corner region, contains all distinct numbers.

Anti-knight Sudoku

Consider all instances of some number, say 1, in an anti-chiece Latin square. If the board is n by n, we get n instances of non-attacking chieces. A famous math puzzle asks to place eight non-attacking queens on a standard chessboard. So the instances of any one particular number in an anti-queen Latin square solves the problem of placing n non-attacking queens on an n by n chessboard. Thus, building an anti-queen Latin square is more complicated than solving the non-attacking queens puzzle. The former requires filling the chessboard with n non-overlapping sets of non-attacking queens. The picture below gives an example of an anti-queen 5 by 5 Latin square.

Anti-queen Sudoku

This square has some interesting properties. It can be formed by cycling the first row. It also happens to be one of the chiece Latin squares we study in our paper. A chiece Latin square is a Latin square such that for each number in a cell, there is another cell, a chiece’s move apart, containing the same number. You can check that our anti-queen Latin square is at the same time a knight Latin square.

I wonder, can anyone build an anti-queen Latin square on the standard 8 by 8 chessboard?


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The Problem with Two Girls

Puzzle. Two girls were born to the same mother, at the same time, on the same day, in the same month, in the same year, and yet somehow they’re not twins. Why not?

I won’t tell you the expected answer, but my students are inventive. They suggested all sorts of scenarios.

Scenario 1. There are two different fathers. I had to google this and discovered that, indeed, it is possible. This phenomenon is called heteropaternal superfecundation. It happens when two of a woman’s eggs are fertilized by sperm from two different men. Unfortunately for my students, such babies would still be called twins.

Scenario 2. The girls are born on the same date, but not on the same day. This could happen when transitioning from the Julian to Gregorian calendar. The difference in birth times could be up to two weeks. I had to google this and discovered that twins can be born months apart. The record holders have a condition called uterus didelphys, which means that the mother has two wombs. Unfortunately for my students, such babies would still be called twins.

Scenario 3. The second girl is a clone. This scenario can potentially happen in the future. Fortunately for that student, I suspect that such babies would be called clones, not twins.

I decided to invent my own scenario outside of the actual answer, and I did.

Scenario 4. Two girls are from the same surrogate mother, but they are not twins. I had to google this and discovered that this actually happened: Surrogate mother of ‘twins’ finds one is hers.

Sometimes life is more interesting than math puzzles.

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Martin Gardner’s Surprise

Martin Gardner's Surprise

In his article on Möbius strips, Martin Gardner included a cute construction.

Construction. Cut out a cross from a piece of paper. Then glue one pair of opposite ends to make a cylinder and the other pair to make a Möbius strip. Then Martin instructs, “Trisect the twisted band, then bisect the untwisted one, and open up for a big surprise!”

In my effort to reuse Möbius strips, I started making them out of zippers. So Martin’s construction had its destiny zipped. The first picture shows the construction before it is being dissected. I was quite happy with my plan to use zippers as it had its advantages over paper. For the surprise to work, the twisted band shouldn’t be cut completely. Meaning, the middle part of the Möbius strip shouldn’t be cut. I sewed my zipper monstrosity not to cause any ambiguities: there is nothing to cut, just unzip the zippers.

Little did I know that unzipping is not the issue, but zipping back up is. I tried to zip the surprise back up several times; all of them unsuccessfully, as you can see on the two other pictures. I finally had to invite the real expert — my grandson — to do it.

Martin Gardner's Surprise 2
Martin Gardner's Surprise 2

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Ready for My Knot Theory Class

Ready for Knot Theory Class

I used to hate crocheting. Now it’s been growing on me.


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Zipper Math

Zipper Surfaces

Each time I teach my students about the Möbius strip, I bring paper, scissors, and tape to class. The students make Möbius strips, and then I ask them to cut the strips in half along the midline and predict the result.

Then we move to advanced strips. To glue the Möbius strip, you need one turn of the paper. An interesting experiment is to glue strips with two, three, or more turns. In this case, too, it is fun to cut them along the midline and predict the shape of the resulting thingy. My class ends with a big paper mess.

As you might know, I am passionate about recycling. So I have always wanted to buy Möbius strips that can be cut in half and then put back together. I didn’t find them, so I made them myself from zippers. Now I can unzip them along the midline and zip them back together. I hope to have less mess in my future classes. We’ll see.

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Borromean Rings

Borromean Rings

Here are my newly-made Borromean rings: two identical sets of them. They are an example of three linked rings, with any two of them not linked. The top set is positioned the way the Borromean rings are usually presented. You can see that any two rings are not linked by mentally ignoring the third one. For example, the red ring is on top of the green one, the green one is on top of the blue one, and the blue one is on top of the red one. They have a non-transitive ordering.

The bottom set of rings is arranged for a lazier thinker. Obviously, the blue and green rings are not linked.


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My Moscow State University Transcripts

I used to be proud of my Russian math education. I am still proud of my high school one, but not so much of the one I received in college. In Soviet Russia, a student had to choose their major before applying to college. I wanted to study mathematics, and I got accepted to the best place for it in Soviet Russia: mekhmat — the math school at the Moscow State University. I used to be proud of my education there, but now I have my doubts.

I had to take, on average, four math classes per semester for five years, which totals about 40 math classes. Woo hoo! I don’t think American students could even choose to take that many. This was presumably good, but most of the courses were required, and their curriculum remained unchanged for many, many years. Obviously, the system was very rigid. The faculty members feared retaliation from the communist party and forgot how to take initiative. The bureaucracy prevented the department from adding new and exciting math to the outdated curriculum.

This post is not about my grades but about the actual subjects that we were taught then. But, in case anyone is wondering, my only B was in English; everything else was straight As.

Some of the classes listed below lasted two or more semesters, that’s why they do not sum up to the promised 40. Unfortunately, I do not remember which ones. These were the required math classes:

  • Analysis
  • Analytical Geometry
  • Advanced Algebra
  • Theoretical Mechanics
  • Linear Algebra and Geometry
  • Differential Equations
  • Partial Differential Equations
  • Functions of Complex Variables
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Differential Geometry and Topology
  • Numerical Methods
  • Introduction to Mathematical Logic
  • Control Theory
  • Analysis III
  • Computer Science and Programming
  • Programming Practice
  • Physics
  • History and Methodology of Mathematics
  • Thesis Work

An impressive list? But guess what — I remember nothing from most of these classes. As an exception, I remember bits of Differential Equations, taught by Vladimir Arnold, a charismatic teacher. I remember Linear Algebra well, not because of my Linear Algebra class, but because I read Gelfand’s book on the subject and loved it. I remember that the Differential Geometry and Topology class was taught by Fomenko with great pictures and boring material. By the time I took Fomenko’s class, I already knew topology from an unofficial class taught by Dmitry Fuchs, which was so much better. In fact, in order to learn what I wanted, I had to take many classes unofficially, so my total is actually way above 40.

By junior year, we were finally allowed to choose some classes which would count towards our transcripts, and this is what I picked.

  • Infinite-Dimensional Representations of Lie Groups
  • Theory of Functions of Many Complex Variables
  • Representations of Lie Groups
  • Discrete Mathematics

I remember these classes much more vividly. I also wrote a graduate thesis: “Models of Representations of Generalized Clifford Algebras.” I loved working on that paper.

We had non-math classes too: everyone had to take them.

  • History of the Communist Party of the USSR
  • Philosophy of Marxism-Leninism
  • Political Economy
  • Scientific Communism
  • Foundations of Scientific Atheism
  • Soviet Law
  • Foreign Language (English)
  • Physical Education
  • Foundations of Marx-Lenin’s Aesthetics

To graduate, everyone had to pass two state exams: Mathematics and Scientific Communism. Whatever the latter might mean.

Did I mention that I am no longer proud of my former Soviet college education? What a colossal waste of time!


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Hats and Time

Here is a classical puzzle I often give to my students.

Puzzle. The sultan has three red hats and two blue ones. He wants to test his three wizards, who know his hat collection. He asks them to close their eyes and puts a hat on each of their heads. After the wizards open their eyes, they see each other’s hats, but not their own. The sultan asks each of them to guess the color of their own hat, without communicating with each other. In this particular test, the sultan only puts red hats on the wizards’ heads. Sometime after the wizards open their eyes, one of them guesses his hat’s color. How did he guess?

Here is how my students explain the solution. If a wizard sees two blue hats, he immediately knows that his hat must be red. That means, if no one immediately announces their hat’s color, at least two of them are wearing red hats. In this case, if a wizard sees one red hat, he knows that his hat must also be red. So such a wizard can guess the color of his hat. If after some more time, no one announces their hat color, all the hats worn must be red.

After the students solve the problem, I run an evil experiment on them. I show the students my two blue and three red hats and ask three volunteers to close their eyes. Then, I put two red hats and one blue hat on their heads, and the blue hat goes on the fastest thinker in the group. I did this experiment many times. Half the time, the fastest thinker overestimates how fast the other students think and guesses, mistakenly, that s/he is wearing the red hat. Gotcha!

After the experiment, we discuss what is really going on in this puzzle. This is how I start my class on common knowledge.

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