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Month July 2018

My talk at the 2018 Williams College math camp

[had to write this in a hurry before the family headed off for a vacation – sorry that this post is likely a little sloppy]

Yesterday I gave a talk at a math camp for high school students at Williams College. The camp is run by Williams College math professor Allison Pacelli and has about 20 student.

The topic for my talk was the hypercube. In the 90 min talk, I hoped to share some amazing ideas I learned from Kelsey Houston-Edwards and Federico Ardila and then just see where things went.

A short list of background material for the talk (in roughly the order in the talk is):

(1) A discussion of how to count vertices, edges, faces, and etc in cubes of various dimensions

This is a project I did with my kids a few years ago, and I think helps break the ice a little bit for students who are (rightfully!) confused about what the 4th dimension might even mean:

Counting geometric properties in 4 and 6 dimensionsf

(2) With that introduction I had the students build regular cubes out of the Zometool set I brought. Then I gave them some yellow struts and asked them to construct what they thought a hypercube might look like. From the prior discussion they knew how many points and lines to expect.

To my super happy surprise, the students built two different representations. I had my boys talk about the two different representations this morning. Funny enough, they had difference preferences for which was the “best” representation:

Here’s what my older son had to say:

Here’s what my younger son had to say:

At the end of this section of my talk I showed the students “Hypercube B” from Bathsheba Grossman (as well as my Zometool version):

(3) Now we moved on to looking at cubes in a different way -> standing on a corner rather than laying flat

I learned about this amazing way to view a cube from this amazing video from Kelsey Houston-Edwards. One of the many bits of incredible math in this video is the connection between Pascal’s triangle and cubes.

Here are the two projects I did with my kids a after seeing Houston-Edwards’s video:

Kelsey Houston-Edwards’s hypercube video is incredible

One more look at the hypercube

After challenging the kids to think about what the “slices” of the 3- and 4-dimensional cubes standing on their corners would be, I showed them the 3D printed versions I prepared for the talk:

Here are the 2d slices of the 3d cube:

Here are the 3d slices of the 4d cube:

(4) Finally, we looked at the connection between cubes and combinatorics

I learned about this connection from this amazing video from Numberphile and Federico Ardila:

Here is the project I did with my older son after seeing Ardila’s video:

Federico Ardila’s Combinatorics and Higher Dimensions video is incredible!

I walked the students through how the vertices of a square correspond to the subsets of a 2-element set and then asked them to show how the vertices of a cube correspond to the subsets of a 3-element set.

There were a lot of oohs and ahhs as the students saw the elements of Pascal’s triangle emerge again.

Then I asked the students to find the correspondence between the 4-d cubes they’d made and subsets of a 4-elements set. I was incredibly happy to hear three different explanations from the students about how this correspondence worked – I actually wish these explanations were on video because I think Ardila would have absolutely loved to hear them.

(5) One last note

If you find all these properties of 4-D cubes as neat as I do, Jim Propp has a fantastic essay about 4 dimensional cubes:

Jim Propp’s essay Time and Tesseracts

By lucky coincidence, this essay was published as I was trying to think about how to structure my talk and was the final little push I needed to put all the ideas together.

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Playing with Colin Wright’s card puzzle

Aperiodical is hosting an “internet math off” right now and lots of interesting math ideas are being shared:

The Big Internet Math Off

The shared by Colin Wright caught my attention yesterday and I wanted to share it with the boys today:

The page for the Edmund Harriss v. Colin Wright Math Off

The idea is easy to play with on your own -> deal out a standard deck of cards (arranged in any order you like) into 13 piles of 4 cards. By picking any card you like (but exactly one card) from each of the 4 piles, can you get a complete 13-card sequence Ace, 2, 3, . . . , Queen, King?

Here’s how I introduced Wright’s puzzle. I started the way he started – when you deal the 13 piles, is it likely that the top card in each pile will form the Ace through King sequence:

Now we moved on to the main problem – can you choose 1 card from each of the 13 piles to get the Ace through King sequence?

As always, it is fascinating to hear how kids think through advanced mathematical ideas. By the end of the discussion here both kids thought that you’d always be able to rearrange the cards to get the right sequence.

Now I had the boys try to find the sequence. Their approach was essentially the so-called “greedy algorithm”. And it worked just fine.

To wrap up, we shuffled the cards again and tried the puzzle a second time. This time it was significantly more difficult to find the Ace through King sequences, but they got there eventually.

They had a few ideas about why their procedure worked, but they both thought that it would be pretty hard to prove that it worked all the time.

I’m always happy to learn about advanced math ideas that are relatively easy to share with kids. Wright’s card puzzle is one that I hope many people see and play around with – it is an amazing idea for kids (and everyone!) to see.

When Cos(x) is larger than 1

My son stumbled on an amazing graph completely by accident the other day. He’s doing some work reviewing trig functions this week and I asked him to just play around with some graphs in Mathematica to get a feel for how Sin[x] and Cos[x] behave. One of the graphs he drew was:

y = \cos( \sqrt{x}) from x = -100 to 100:

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 6.17.42 PM

I certainly wasn’t expecting him to make a graph like this one, but was happy that he did. Yesterday we talked through what was going on.

We started by discussing why the graph seemed so strange:

Now we dove into some of the details – which involve complex numbers and the definition:

e^{i \theta} = \cos(\theta) + i \sin(\theta)

as well as the definition of even and odd functions. So, there’s a lot of math to that we need to bring to the table to understand what’s going on in our graph.

Finally, we calculated the exact value of \cos(7i). Again, there’s a lot of advanced math that comes in to the calculation here – but even if some of the math ideas took a bit to sink in, I’d say that all in all it was a good conversation:

An amazing visual / math project for kids I learned from Jessica Rosenkrantz

Last week I learned about an incredible fluid flow project from Jessica Rosenkrantz. I don’t want to give away the delightful surprise, so I’m not going to share the original tweets, but here is RosenKrantz’s pinned tweet – check her timeline for tweets on June 24, 2018 to see the inspiration for this project (and to see the idea we explore in today’s project executed to perfection):

Also, here are two other projects we’ve done with her work at Nervous System:

The puzzles and everything else from Nervous System will blow your mind!

Using the Infinite Galaxy Puzzle from Nervous System to talk topology with kids

For today’s project you need a little bit of paint (or s similar liquid), and two sheets of glass. Be careful doing this project with young kids – my kids are 12 and 14 and I thought they’d be able to handle the sharp glass themselves with gloves.

You spread out a bit of paint on one pane of glass, put the second pane on top, and then pull the two panes apart. What shapes do you expect to see in the paint after the panes are separated?

My younger son tried it out first:

My older son went second:

I think this is an amazing project to try with kids. Hearing what they think will happen and then hearing how they react to and describe what happens is really fun!