A strange problem I overheard Bjorn Poonen discussing

I was sitting in a lounge in the MIT math department on Tuesday evening reading and waiting to meet a friend when Bjorn Poonen walked in and began to discuss a strange problem with a student. I hadn’t really realized how strange the problem was until I started thinking about it just now. Here’s how the problem goes:

Start in two dimensions. Suppose that you have a 2×2 square and that you chop it into 4 1×1 squares. Inside each of those 4 squares draw the inscribed circle, and then draw the circle at the center of the square that is tangent to each of those 4 circles. The situation looks like this picture:



Now extend the idea to 3 dimensions. So, start with a 2x2x2 cube, chop it into 8 cubes, inscribe spheres in each of those cubes, and finally draw the sphere in the middle of the cube that is tangent to each of those 8 spheres. I don’t know how much it helps, but here’s basically half of the picture with our Zometool set and some tennis balls:


Here’s the problem:

(A) As you extend this idea into higher and higher dimensions, is there a dimension in which the sphere in the middle is actually larger than each of spheres inscribed in the 1x1x1 . . . x1 n-dimensional boxes?

(B) Is there a dimension in which the sphere in the middle actually extends outside of the 2x2x2 . . . x2 n-dimensional box?

(C) Is there a dimension in which the n-dimensional volume of the center sphere is larger than the 2x2x2 . . . x2 n-dimensional box?

Does this math course exist?

I’ve spent the last few days thinking about how students can learn about math that is normally outside of the school (both k-12 and college) curriculum.

The topic has been on my mind for a while, actually – pretty much since seeing this Ed Frenkel interview several years ago:

Frenkel’s talk has inspired several of my blog posts.

I wrote this one after seeing a project that Dan Anderson did with his students:

A list Ed Frenkel will love

Then, after seeing Lior Pachter write about how some unsolved problems in math fit nicely into the Common Core:

Lior Pachter’s “Unsolved Problems with the Common Core

I sort of combined Pachter’s idea and my thoughts about Frenkel’s interview into several different posts in the last couple of years:

Sharing math from Mathematicians with the Common Core

10 pretty easy to implement math activities for kids

A partial response to Sam Shah

This week I ran across two new ideas that got me thinking about sharing math, (and not just with kids). The first (I saw thinks to a SheckyR comment on a recent post) is this interview with Keith Devlin:

Keith Devlin’s interview: On learning and what it means to be human

This quote right at the beginning (around 3:40 into the interview) really struck me:

“If the last experience with mathematics is what you learned – certainly up to the middle level of high school – and to a large extent to the end of high school . . . you’ve basically never seen mathematics.”

Then I saw this tweet from TJ Hitchman:

I think the Hitchman and Devlin ideas are connected – if all you are seeing as a student is the math that is part of the normal school math programs (which, at least where I live, seem to be driven by what’s on the state tests) it would be pretty hard for anyone at all to get excited about math.

So, how do we, as Frenkel asks, get students to “realize that mathematics is this incredible archipelago of knowledge?”

A new idea crossed my mind this morning – and it isn’t that well thought out, but . . . .

One of the most influential-after-college classes that I took in college was a year-long physics course called “Junior Lab.” The idea in Junior Lab is that over the course of each semester you’ll do 6 (I think) famous experiments in physics (out of maybe 20 total choices). The website for the course is here:

Junior Lab’s website

After you do the experiments you present the results to your instructor as if you were the one doing the original experiment. As I wrote half-jokingly to my old lab partner, this is the most scary room on campus!

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 10.07.07 AM

You, of course, learn about the experiments, but there are so many lessons beyond that. The class teaches you about the breadth of physics, about experiments not working the way they are supposed to (!!), about presenting and defending results, and about writing papers.

It seems like the Junior lab format would be a great format for showing students math that isn’t typically part of a k-12 or college curriculum. It is a few steps beyond what Dan Anderson did with his “My Favorite” project, but, I think, would give students a totally different perspective on math.

It would be about as far away from a “learn this fact / take this test” type of math class as you can get. The students would have a wonderful opportunity to learn about many different areas of math and math research, and, as I mentioned above, the lessons from this class would reach far beyond the math.

In any case, I was wondering if there is a course like this anywhere. I hope there is because I’d like to think through the idea a little more carefully.