Posts tagged ‘square’

It’s Not What’s on the Outside…

Through the Academic and Creative Endeavors (ACE) program at their school, my sons participate in the Math Olympiad for Elementary and Middle School (MOEMS). While passing the door to the ACE room yesterday, I noticed a sign with the names of those who scored a perfect 5 out of 5 on the most recent contest — and my sons’ names were conspicuously absent. Last night at dinner, I asked Alex and Eli what happened, and they told me about the problem that they both missed. (What? Like we’re the only family in America that discusses math problems at the dinner table.) Here’s how they explained it to me:

Nine 1-cm by 1-cm squares are arranged to form a 3 × 3 square, as shown below. The 3 × 3 square is divided into two pieces by cutting along gridlines only. What is the greatest total (combined) perimeter for the two shapes?

3x3 Grid

The answer to this problem appears below. Pause here if you’d like to solve it before reaching the spoiler.

[Ed. Note: I didn’t see the actual exam, so the presentation of the problem above is based entirely on my sons’ description. Apologies to MOEMS for any substantive differences.]

This problem epitomizes what I love about math competitions.

  • The answer to the problem is not obvious. This is the case with many competition problems, unlike the majority of problems that appear in a traditional textbook.
  • The solution does not rely on rote mechanics. Again, this differentiates it from a standard textbook problem or — shudder! — from the problems that often populate the databases of many skill-based online programs.
  • Students have to get messy. That is, they’ll need to try something, see what happens, then decide if they can improve the result.
  • Students have to convince themselves when to stop. Or more precisely, they’ll need to convince themselves that they’ve found the correct answer. For instance, let’s say a student divides the square into a 3 × 2 and a 3 × 1 rectangle. The combined perimeter is 18 units. Is that good enough, or can you do better? This is different from, say, a typical algebra problem, for which students are taught how to check their answer.  3x2-and-3x1-rectangles

The problem also epitomizes what many people hate about math competitions.

  • There’s a time limit. Students have 26 minutes to solve 5 problems. Which means that if students spend more than 5 minutes on this one, they may not have time to finish the other four. (There was a student of John Benson who, when asked about his goal for an upcoming math competition, replied, “I hope to solve half the problems during the competition and all of them by the end of the week.” That’s the way mathematicians work.)
  • It’s naked math. Sorry, nothing real-world about this one. (But maybe that’s okay, because real may not be better.)
  • The problem is presented as a neat little bundle. This is rarely how mathematics actually works. True problems often don’t present themselves all at once; it’s through investigation and research that the constraints become known and the nuances are revealed.

All that said, I believe that the pros far outweigh the cons. Benjamin Franklin Finkel said, “Many dormant minds have been aroused into activity through the mastery of a single problem.” I don’t remember the last time a mind was aroused by the solution to x + 7 = -3, but I’ve witnessed awakenings when students solve problems like the one above.

And here’s the tragedy in all of this: Many teachers believe that only kids who participate in math competitions can handle — or appreciate — math competition questions. No! Quite the opposite, in fact. Students who have tuned out have done so because they’ve never been challenged and, worse, have never felt the thrill of solving a problem on their own.

What I really love about the problem, though, is it made me think about other questions that could be asked:

  • How many ways are there to divide a 3 × 3 square into two pieces that will yield the maximum total perimeter?
  • What is the maximum total perimeter if a 3 × 3 square is divided into three pieces?
  • What is the maximum total perimeter if a 4 × 4 square is divided into two pieces? …a 5 × 5 square? …a 6 × 6 square?
    • The answer to the problem about the 4 × 4 square appears below. Pause here if you’d like to solve it before reaching the spoiler.
  • (wait for it) What is the maximum total perimeter if an n × n square is divided into two pieces?

It was that last question that really got the blood pumping.

Here’s a solution for how to divide a 3 × 3 square to yield the greatest total perimeter:


And here’s a solution for how to divide a 4 × 4 square to yield the greatest total perimeter:


What’s the solution for an n × n square? That’s left as an exercise for the reader.

December 5, 2016 at 5:32 am Leave a comment

Mathiest Fortnight of 2016

Monday, April 4, 2016, was Square Root Day, because the date is abbreviated 4/4/16, and 4 × 4 = 16. But if you’re a faithful reader of this blog, then you already knew that, because you read all about it in Monday’s post, Guess the Graph on Square Root Day.

But it doesn’t end there. It ain’t just one day. Oh, no, friends… this is a banner week. Or, really, a banner two weeks.

April 2016 Math

Tomorrow, April 8, 2016, is a geometric sequence day, because the date is 4/8/16, and 4 × 2 = 8, and 8 × 2 = 16.

And Saturday, April 9, 2016, is a consecutive square number day, because the month, day, and year are consecutive square numbers. Square number days, in which each of the month, day, and year are all square numbers — not necessarily consecutive — are less rare; there are 15 of them this year. But among them is 1/4/16, which rocks the intersection of square number days and geometric sequence days. (That’s right — I said “rocks the intersection.”)

And then Sunday, April 10, 2016, is an arithmetic sequence day, because 4, 10, and 16 have a common difference of 6. Though honestly, arithmetic sequence days are a dime a half-dozen; there are six of them this year.

Next Monday, April 12, 2016, is a sum day, because 4 + 12 = 16. Again, ho-hum. There are a dozen sum days this year, and there will be a dozen sum days every year through 2031.

And just a little further in the future is Friday, April 16, 2016, whose abbreviation is 4/16/16, and if you remove those unsightly slashes, you get 41,616 = 2042. I’m not sure what you’d call such a day, other than awesome.

Admittedly, some of those things are fairly common occurrences. But, still. That’s six calendar-related phenomena in a thirteen-day period, which may be enough mathematic-temporal mayhem to unseat the previously unrivaled Mathiest Week of 2013.

Partially, this blog post was meant to enlighten and entertain you. But mostly, it was meant to send numerologists off the deep end. Mission. Accomplished.

You’ve endured enough. Here are some calendar-related jokes for you…

Did you hear about the two grad students who stole a calendar?
They each got six months!

I was going to look for my missing calendar, but I just couldn’t find the time.

What do calendars eat?

April 7, 2016 at 5:55 am 1 comment

A Father’s Day Gift Worth Waiting For

Fathers DayAlex made a Father’s Day Book for me. Because the book didn’t make it on our trip to France, however, I didn’t receive it until this past weekend. It was worth the wait.

The book was laudatory in praising my handling of routine fatherly duties:

I loved when you took me to Smashburger.

I appreciated when you helped me find a worm.

I love when you read to me at night.

I love when I see you at the sign-out sheet [at after-school care]. It means I can spend time with you.

But my favorite accolade — surprise! — was mathematical:

I liked the multiplication trick you taught me. Take two numbers, find the middle [average], square it. Find the difference [from one number to the average], square it, subtract it. (BOOM! Done!)


The trick that I taught him was how to use the difference of squares to quickly find a product. For instance, if you want to multiply 23 × 17, then…

  • The average of 23 an 17 is 20, and 202 = 400.
  • The difference between 23 and 20 is 3, and 32 = 9.
  • Subtract 400 – 9 = 391.
  • So, 23 × 17 = 391.
  • BOOM! Done!

This works because

(a + b)(a - b) = a^2 - b^2 ,

and if you let a = 20 and b = 3, then you have

23 \times 17 = (20 + 3)(20 - 3) = 20^2 - 3^2 .

In particular, I suggested this method if (1) the numbers are relatively small and (2) either both are odd or both are even. I would not recommend this method for finding the product 6,433 × 58:

  • The average is 3,245.5, and (3,245.5)2 = 10,533,270.25.
  • The difference between 6,433 and 3,245.5 is 3,187.5, and (3,187.5)2 = 10,160,156.25.
  • Subtract 10,533,270.25 – 10,160,156.25 = 373,114.
  • So, 6,433 × 58 = 373,114.

Sure, it works, but that problem screams for a calculator. The trick only has utility when the numbers are small and nice enough that finding the square of the average and difference is reasonable.

Then again, it’s not atypical for sons to do unreasonable things…

Son: Would you do my homework?

Dad: Sorry, son, it wouldn’t be right.

Son: That’s okay. Can you give it a try, anyway?

I’m just glad that my sons understand math at an abstract level…

A young boy asks his mother for some help with math. “There are four ducks on a pond. Two more ducks join them on the pond. How many ducks are there?”

The mother is surprised. She asks, “You don’t know what 4 + 2 is?”

“Sure, I do,” says the boy. “It’s 6. But what does that have to do with ducks?”

July 2, 2014 at 6:34 am Leave a comment

Help Wanted at the Math Diner

The following is a Help Wanted ad that Alex made in school.

Math Diner Help Wanted

Were I to open a restaurant, I would look for similar qualities in my wait staff: sharp and curvaceous.

The slogan would be:

The Math Diner — where everyone gets a square meal!

And the menu would include the following items:

  • Prime Rib
  • Free-Range Chicken
  • Mathed Potatoes
  • Dim Sum
  • Chicken Pot Pi
  • Seven-Layer Dip
  • Three-Bean Salad
  • Root Beer
  • Petit Fours

December 11, 2013 at 8:02 am 2 comments

Celebrity Sighting at Math Meeting

I have the pleasure of serving on the advisory committee for the Math Midway 2 Go, a traveling exhibit of the Museum of Mathematics. I get to see a lot of cool stuff.


When it opens on December 15, MoMath will be the only museum of mathematics in North America. If you happen to find yourself in Manhattan, check it out. The exhibits are really fun.

One of the exhibits in the Math Midway 2 Go is a number line with ornaments hanging from each number. For instance, a square ornament hangs from the numbers 1, 4, 9, 16, …, and a symbol that looks like an atom hangs from 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, … (the atom symbol was used because “prime numbers are the building blocks of the number system”). However, I was not able to identify the symbol that hangs from the following numbers:

3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 16, 17, 20, 24, 30,
32, 34, 40, 48, 51, 60, 64, 68, 80, 85, 96

I’ve been told that the symbol is a compass (the kind for drawing circles, not for orienteering). Unfortunately, that hint didn’t help me to identify the sequence of numbers. Do you know what the sequence is? **

A recent meeting of the advisory committee was held at a private school in NYC, and a number of parents were waiting in the hallway when our meeting ended. As I walked by, one of the parents stood up quickly, and I accidentally brushed against her. “Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said. She turned to look at me, and I looked back. First, I noticed how tall she was. Then I noticed something else. “Oh,” I said, “you’re Brooke Shields.” Turns out her kids go to this school. She smiled politely at my recognition.

Brooke Shields

She was dressed in casual clothes, and she was just there to pick up her kids. I didn’t want to be a nuisance, so I just said, “Have a great day.”

How cool is that? Go to a math meeting, meet a celebrity! And one I had a crush on when I was 13, no less!

** The sequence is the number of sides for constructible polygons, which are regular polygons that can be drawn with a straightedge and compass.

July 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm 3 comments

Impossible Tasks for Rabbits

Too cold to run to the convenient store for a six-pack? Too many Allen wrenches necessary for you to put together that Vrådal loft bed that you bought from Ikea? Want someone to walk Fido while you finish the last 1,126 pages of War and Peace?

Task RabbitIf you need something done but you’re too lazy or unqualified to do it yourself — and if you live in certain metropolitan areas — then you can have one of the “runners” at TaskRabbit do it for you. It’s a service that turns grunt work into a game. Simply post the task that needs to be done, and runners bid for the opportunity to do it.

There is no limit to the types of tasks that are listed. A recent posting asked, “Do you know a Girl Scout from whom I can place a cookie order?” One of the top runners completed the task “Prank Call Our Customer Service Rep” in which he posed as an animal-welfare activist who sought donations to buy Viagra for soon-to-be-extinct Siberian tigers [“Call of Duty,” Wired, Aug 2011].

That’s funny stuff.

I received no compensation from TaskRabbit to write this post, nor am I an angel investor; I just think it’s a great idea. There ought to be a similar service for intellectual tasks…

  • Statistician needed to massage data from a research study to get the results we’d like.
  • Geometer needed to square a circle and/or trisect an angle.
  • Looking for contractor to build real-life version of Waterfall by M. C. Escher.
  • Puzzler needed to solve the following slider puzzle:14-15 Slider Puzzle
  • Logician needed to figure out who shaves the Barber of Seville.
  • Number theorist needed to rationalize the denominator of a fraction with sqrt(pi) in the denominator.
  • Spatial geometrician needed to get Dirk Gently’s couch unstuck, or to walk through a revolving door with a pair of skis on her shoulder.
  • Engineer and hopeless romantic needed to kiss a girl by walking halfway to her, then halfway again, then halfway again, …

February 24, 2012 at 9:46 pm Leave a comment

Dissections are Fun, No Matter How You Slice It

Some folks have referred to me as “a real cut‑up.” Of course, those folks are generally septuagenarians who still use words coined in the mid‑1800’s. But I take it as a compliment, perhaps because I’m a fan of dissection problems.

Speaking of dissection, here’s one of my favorite quotes about jokes, which comes from E. B. White:

Humor can be dissected as a frog can — but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

Like jokes and amphibians, geometric figures can be dissected, too. The following are three of my favorite dissection problems.

My all-time favorite is the Haberdasher Problem, originally proposed by H. E. Dudeney in 1902. It’s my favorite because of its simplicity — it can be described with just a few words, and it asks the would‑be solver to turn the simplest of all polygons, an equilateral triangle, into a square:

With three cuts, dissect an equilateral triangle so that the pieces can be rearranged to form a square.

The second isn’t really a problem to be solved. Instead, it’s a dissection that offers a surprising result. (At least, I was surprised the first time I saw it.)

Remove a tetrahedron of edge length 1 unit from each vertex of a larger tetrahedron with edge length 2 units. In total, remove four tetrahedra, one from each vertex. The image below shows one of the tetrahedra being removed. What is the shape of the solid that remains?

 Tetrahedron - Corner Removed

Finally, here’s an original dissection problem.

Form a pentagon by placing an isosceles triangle with height 1 unit on top of a square with side length 2 units. Then find a point P along the perimeter of the pentagon such that when P is connected to two vertices, the three pieces into which the pentagon is divided can be rearranged to form a square. Find the area of the largest piece. 

Pentagon - For Dissection

As usual, these problems are presented without answers or solutions. More fun can be had if you solve them yourself.

May 23, 2011 at 11:16 pm 1 comment

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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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