Dave Radcliffe’s “unit fraction” tweet

Saw a neat tweet from Dave Radcliffe a few weeks ago:

I’d played around with it a bit on Mathematica and the code was still up on my computer screen when we were playing with base 3/2 yesterday, so the kids asked about it.

Radcliffe’s proof is a bit too difficult for kids, I think, but the general idea is still fun to explore. I stumbled through a few explanations throughout this project (forgetting to say the series should be finite, and saying “denominator” rather than “numerator” at one point), but hopefully the videos are still clear.

I started by explaining the problem and looking at a few simple examples:

Next we looked at how it could be possible for a finite sum of distinct numbers of the form 1 / (an integer) could add up to 100, or 1000, or some huge number:

Now that we understood a bit about the Harmonic series, we jumped to Mathematica. I sort of half explained / half skipped over the “greedy algorithm” procedure that Radcliffe uses in his paper. I thought seeing the results would explain the procedure a bit better.

We played around with adding up to 3 and then a couple of numbers that the boys picked.

After playing around with a sum adding up to 3, we tried 4 and the boys got a big surprise. We then tried 5 and couldn’t get to then end!

After we turned off the camera we played around with the sum going up to 5 a bit more sensibly and found that there are (from memory) 102 terms and “n” in the last 1/n term has 142,548 digits!

So, a little on the complicated side, but still a fun math fact (and computer project!) for kids to explore.

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