## Archive for January, 2018

### The Beer Paradox

From Gene Weingarten’s recent column, “Rhymes Against Humanity,” in the January 28 edition of the *Washington Post Magazine*:

An infinite number of mathematicians

Walked into a bar on one recent night,

And, under the strangest of barroom conditions,

What followed quite nearly became a big fight.“I’ll have a pint,” said the first to the ’tender.

“I’ll have a half,” said the next fellow down.

“I’ll have a quarter,” said the third (no big spender).

“Give me an eighth,” said the next, like a clown.The bartender fumed and grew suddenly pale

Then, calmly, he turned and he went to the spout

Drew up two pints, set them down at the rail.

Said, “Enough of this nonsense — you all work it out.”

This is an MJ4MF original, though like Gene’s, it’s based on a stale, old joke:

With my head in an oven

And my feet on some ice,

I’d say that, on average,

I feel rather nice!

What other classic math jokes can be easily converted to poems? Or have already been?

### Stupid Stats

C’mon, now… really?

Uterine size in non-pregnant women varies in relation to age and gravidity [number of pregnancies]. The

mean length-to-width ratio conformed to the golden ratioat the age of 21, coinciding with peak fertility.

Claiming that a uterine golden ratio coincides with peak fertility is highly suspect. The good folks at Ava Women claim that, “Most women reach their peak fertility rates between the ages of 23 and 31.” Information at Later Baby states, “Female fertility and egg quality peak around the age of 27.” And WebMD says, “A woman’s peak fertility is in her early 20s.” So, there seems to be some debate about when peak fertility actually occurs. Consequently, this strikes me as retro-fitting, and it seems that Dr. Verguts and his colleagues may have played loose with the age of peak fertility in order to make a connection to the golden ratio.

In their defense, though, it’s not the first time that folks have gone uptown trying to find a connection to the golden ratio. A claim by The Golden Number states, “[The DNA molecule] measures 34 angstroms long by 21 angstroms wide for each full cycle of its double helix spiral,” and 34/21 ≈ 1.6190476, which is approximately equal to φ, 1.6180339.

Though this guy — an honest-to-goodness biologist — seems to disagree:

I’ve also heard folks say that people are perceived as more beautiful if certain bodily proportions are in the golden ratio. The most extreme example of this that I’ve found involves the teeth:

…the most “beautiful” smiles are those in which central incisors are 1.618 wider than the lateral incisors, which are 1.618 wider than canines, and so on.

In a study of 4,572 extracted adult teeth, Dr. Julian Woelfel found the average width of the central incisor to be 8.6 mm. If the teeth in a beautiful smile follow the geometric progression described above, well, that would imply that the first molar would be just 8.6 × 0.618^{5} ≈ 0.8 mm wide, which isn’t reasonable and, moreover, is not even remotely close to the average width that Dr. Woelfel found for the first molar: approximately 10.4 mm.

But all of these claims involving the golden ratio are not even close to being the stupidest statistics I’ve heard in my life. Mary Anne Tebedo made a remark on the floor of the Colorado State Senate in 1995 that may hold that distinction:

Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25.

Of course, it’s hard to call that a *statistic*, since it’s completely nonsensical. Maybe it’s only the stupidest *statement* I’ve ever heard.

Then there’s this one, from the *New York Times* on August 8, 2016, which couldn’t be more useless:

No presidential candidate has secured a major party nomination after an FBI investigation into her use of a private email server.

Well, duh. Email didn’t even exist before the 1970’s. Moreover, besides Hillary Clinton, has *any* presidential candidate ever had their use of a private server investigated by the FBI? This is like saying, “No one has ever been named *People*‘s Sexiest Man Alive after writing a math joke book.” (Not yet, anyway.)

Randall Munroe made fun of these types of “no politician has ever…” claims in 2012 with his cartoon *Election Precedents*:

And it’s true:

But perhaps my all-time favorite is one that Frank Deford — may he rest in peace — included in his piece “The Stupidest Statistics in the Modern Era” on NPR’s Morning Edition:

He’s [Brandon Phillips] the first National League player to account for as many as 30 steals and 25 double plays in one season.

About this stat, Deford commented, “Steals and double plays together? This is like saying, ‘He’s the first archaeologist to find 23 dinosaur bones and 12 Spanish doubloons on the same hunt.'” (I sure am going to miss him.)

The preponderance of dumb stats shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. A recent study found that people deemed real news headlines to be accurate 83% of the time and fake news headlines to be accurate 75% of the time. So, if we can’t tell truth from fiction, how can we possibly distinguish useful statistics from inane?

If you’d like to test your ability to detect fake news, check out Factitious from American University.

### WODB, Quora Style

The following puzzle was recently posted on Quora:

Which of the following numbers don’t belong: 64, 16, 36, 32, 8, 4?

What I liked about this puzzle was the answer posted by Danny Mittal, a sophomore at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Danny wrote:

64 doesn’t belong, as it’s the only one that can’t be represented by fewer than 7 binary bits.

36 doesn’t belong, as it’s the only one that isn’t a power of 2.

32 doesn’t belong, as it’s the only one whose number of factors has more than one prime factor.

16 doesn’t belong, as it’s the only one that can be written in the form

x, where^{y}xis an integer andyis a number in the list.8 doesn’t belong, as it’s the only one that doesn’t share a digit with any other number in the list.

4 doesn’t belong, as it’s the only one that’s a factor of all other numbers in the list.

I suspect that Danny has visited Which One Doesn’t Belong or has read Christopher Danielson’s *Which One Doesn’t Belong*. Or maybe he’s just a math teacher groupie and trolls MTBoS.

But then Jim Simpson pointed out the use of “don’t” in the problem statement, which I had assumed was a grammatical error. Jim interpreted this to mean that there must be two or more numbers that don’t belong for the same reason, and with that interpretation, Jim suggested the answer was 32 and 8, since all of the others are square numbers.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think this is a great question. But I love that it was interpreted in many different ways. It could lead to a good classroom conversation, and it makes me consider all sorts of things, not the least of which is standardized assessments. How many times have students gotten the wrong answer for the right reason, because they interpreted an item on a state exam or the SAT differently than the author intended? And how many times have we bored students with antiseptic questions, only because we knew they’d be free from such alternate interpretations? Both scenarios make me sad.

### Four, or F**k You?

If you asked a student, “How many sides does a quadrilaterals have?” and you received the following response…

…well, you might be upset.

But perhaps the student learned to count in binary on her fingers, where the right thumb is the register for 1, the right index finger is the register for 2, the right middle finger is the register for 4, and so on. Then the response above would be appropriate, despite appearances.

If you then asked, “Into how many regions will a circle be divided if 6 points are placed randomly on a circle, and each point is connected to every other point?” the student might appear to wave at you — or, she may just be telling you (correctly) that 31 regions would be created by holding up all 5 fingers. (In binary counting, all five fingers add up to 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 = 31.)

My sons learned to count in binary when, at age 5, they asserted that the highest you can count on your fingers is 10. “Actually,” I told them, “You can count as high as 1,023 on your fingers. If you want, I can show you how.”

Of course, they wanted to learn, and I was happy to teach them. There are at least four good reasons for teaching students to count in other bases, and “Dr. Peterson” at the Math Forum had this to say:

I taught my son to multiply in binary before he really learned it in decimal, because it’s easier; you have only the algorithm (method) with no multiplication tables to learn.

Knowing how bases work helps to develop number sense while clarifying the concept of place value. And not understanding place value leads to things like this…

My former boss shared this video with me on Facebook recently, and he asked,

Does this work with other numbers?

I had a fun time playing with that question, so let me now give you a chance to think about it. Can you find another pair of numbers that produce analogous incorrect results when multiplying and dividing? And if you’re feeling really ambitious, can you generalize to determine what types of number pairs will always give these kinds of incorrect results?