A neat unsolved problem in number theory that kids can explore

Yesterday I saw a really neat thread on the Collatz conjecture from Alex Kontorovich

In that thread is a blog post by Alex’s friend Igor Park and Park’s blog post as a link to a neat set of lecture notes by Barry Mazur. AND, in Mazur’s notes is this “new to me” unsolved problem in number theory:

Mazur

Instead of continuing on our journey through Mosteller’s 50 Challenging Problems in Probability, I decided to explore this problem with the boys today.

Here’s the introduction to the problem and a bit of playing around with a few of the small cases:

In the last video the boys thought that the squares would all have to be odd and the primes would have to be odd. Here we explored both of those conjectures. That exploration led to a discussion of why odd numbers always have squares that are congruent to 1 mod 8:

Now we continued the discussion from last video and investigated the primes that could appear in this problem. We started by showing that 2 could never appear and then eventually found that only primes of the form 4k + 1 could appear:

Next we moved to the computer to explore more cases of the conjecture. This was mainly an exercise into writing a simple program in Mathematica, but it led to an interesting discussion as well as an idea for further exploration:

Finally, we modified our program to explore the number of different solutions to the problem for each number. The modification to the program was actually really easy and the histogram was fascinating to see:

It is really fun to be able to explore an unsolved problem with kids. I especially love unsolved problems that allow kids to get in some secret arithmetic practice will getting a bit of exposure to some advanced ideas in math. Seeing this problem yesterday and getting to explore it today with the boys was a real treat!

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One more trip through Goldbach’s comet with the kids

We’ve now down a couple of projects on the latest Numberphile video on the Goldbach Conjecture:

Sharing Numberphile’s Goldbach Conjecture video with kids

Exploring the Goldbach Comet with kids

Following those projects I thought it would be neat to let the computer run and find the numbers that could be written as a sum of two primes in many different ways (specifically, in more ways than any number less than it). Looking at those results produced a nice surprise:

An unexpected surprise for me in the Goldbach Comet

A double surprise was that Numberphile had just (the day before) published a follow up Goldbach Conjecture video that talks a little bit about the idea that explains the pattern I was seeing:

Last night I walked the kids through some of the ideas. We first watched the end of the Numberphile video and then talked about it briefly.

Also, I was pretty under the weather yesterday, so sorry for the low energy from me in this project:

Next we moved on to looking at the Goldbach Comet and told them about the project I was looking at while they were up in New Hampshire hiking.

They noticed the same pattern that I saw and I showed them the prime factorizations of a few of the numbers on my list.

After we talked about the factoring, I wanted to show them another surprise – the Goldbach Comet looks surprisingly symmetric around the numbers that can be written as the sum of two primes in lots of ways.

Fianlly, we wrapped up the project by looking at the symmetry I mentioned above a bit more carefully. I’d like to explore this symmetry a bit more myself!

We’ve really had a fun set of projects on the Goldbach Conjecture. It is definitely accessible to kids and a great way to show them an unsolved problem in math!

Exploring the Goldbach Comet

My wife and kids are going hiking today and I was looking for any fairly light project to do with the boys before they left. This morning I thought playing around with the Goldbach Comet would be a fun idea. We learned about it last week in Numberphile’s Goldbach Conjecture video:

Our first project from that video is here:

Sharing Numberphile’s Goldbach Conjecture video with kids

Today’s project needs a little disclaimer . . . . Sometimes when I decide to try something at the last minute things actually work out ok. Today was much more stumbling around than usual, unfortunately. But we had fun exploring anyway.

So, we started with some simple Mathematica code to explore the number of ways to write an even integer as the sum of two primes:

I gave the boys a challenge of finding the largest even number that can be written as the sum of two primes in 6 different ways. Then we played around a bit more – stumbling around aimlessly . . . .

Finally we used a program from the Wolfram Demonstrations Project to play around with the Goldbach Comet. That project we used is here:

The Goldbach Coment on the Wolfram Demonstrations Project site

I mainly used the code here to ask the kids what they thought they were seeing.

So, a fun project despite the numerous stumbles. I’d actually never heard of the Goldbach Comet prior to the Numberphile video. It was neat to play with.

Sierpinski Numbers

I was trying (unsuccessfully) to track down a reference on the chaos game for Edmund Harriss and ran across an unsolved problem in math that I’d never heard of before -> the Sierpinski Numbers.

Turns out that Sierpinski proved in 1960 that there are infinitely many odd positive integers k for which the number:

k * 2^n + 1

is not prime for any positive integer n.

It turns out that the smallest known Sierpinski number is 78,557, though there are 4 smaller numbers for which no primes have been found, yet. Those numbers are 21181, 22699, 24737, 55459, and 67607.

There’s lots of info on the Sierpinski numbers on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia’s page on the Sierpinski numbers

Tonight I wanted to explain a bit about the Sierpinski numbers to the boys as a way to review modular arithmetic. I also thought it would be interesting to see how they thought you could attack a problem like this one – especially in the 1960s!

So, here’s how we got started – a bit of Sierpinski review and then an introduction to the theorem mentioned above. It isn’t the easiest thing for kids to understand, so I wanted to be extra sure they understood all of the parts:

Next we talked a bit about modular arithmetic and why it wasn’t too hard to see, for example, that lots of the number we were looking at were divisible by 3. The math work here is a great introductory modular arithmetic exercise for kids.

Next we went to Mathematica to explore the modular arithmetic a bit more. Once we had the idea with 3, it was a little easier to see why there were repeating patterns with the remainders mod 5. The fun part was that the boys were able to see that one out of every 4 numbers would be divisible by 5.

Finally, we looked at the problem a slightly different way and tried to see if it was easy or hard to see if 3 (or 5 or 7 or 9) was a Sierpinski number. Would we ever see primes?

This project was really fun – it is always neat to stumble on an unsolved problem that is accessible to kids. Also, I’d really love to know how Sierpinski’s proof went – sort of amazing that it took 8 years after the proof that there were infinitely many numbers with this property to find the first one!

Sharing Numberphile’s Collatz Conjecture video with kids

Numberphile published a beautiful video on the Collatz Conjecture today. I thought it would make for a fantastic project with the kids tonight:

We have looked at the Collatz Conjecture before, so we aren’t starting from scratch here. Two of our prior projects are here:

Revisiting the Collatz Conjecture

the Collatz Conjecture and John Conway’s Amusical Variation

I started the project tonight by asking the kids what they thought was interesting about the video:

Next we tried to recreate the “tree” that was in the video. This exercise was a nice way to check that the kids understood what was going on in Numberphile’s video:

To wrap up I wanted to walk through one example of how the Collatz conjecture plays out. Somewhat unluckily, though, my son chose 31 as the starting point. 31 takes more than 100 steps to converge!

BUT, this video shows why I think the Collatz conjecture is such a fun math idea to share with kids – you can sneak in a lot of arithmetic practice 🙂

So, we gave up after maybe 30 steps in the last video and went to check how long it would take to converge using Mathematica. Someday I’ll learn that when I zoom in too far on Mathematica the video gets super fuzzy . . . but today was not that day 😦

I’m really grateful to Numberphile for their video – I think videos like it will really help show off the beauty of math to a large audience.Collatz.jpg

Sharing Kelsey Houston-Edwards’s philosophy of math video with kids

Kelsey Houston-Edwards is making a series of math videos and the first two are outstanding. We looked at the first one last week:

Sharing Kelsey Houston-Edward’s video with kids

This week’s video is about philosophy and math. A deep subject, for sure, but one which the kids thought was interesting. Here’s the video (and the twitter link so you know when the new videos appear!):

Here’s my older son’s reaction and a few things he thought were interesting:

and here’s what caught my younger son’s eye:

It is so great to see someone doing such an incredible math outreach program. I’m so excited about this video series!

Explaining how 1 + 2 + 3 + . . . can possibly equal -1/12 to a kid

When I did the my biographies for my kids last week my older son said that the thing in math that he’s see but that he does not believe is this equality:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + . . . . = -1/12

This sum was made popular by a Numberphile video a couple of years ago (which now has over 4 million views!):

 

there have also been several good follow ups. For example this video with Ed Frenkel which was also produced by Numberphile:

 

and this video by Mathologer which is absolutely excellent:

 

I spent some time today trying to think about how to discuss this series with my older son. I’m glad that he is bothered by the result – it is obviously very very strange. Obviously I can’t go into the details about the Riemann Zeta function with him, but I still think there’s some what to help him make some sense of the series. So, I spent the day reviewing some ideas in G. H. Hardy’s book “Divergent Series.” Here are a few passages that caught my eye:

(a) Book Cover

I don’t remember where I heard about this book. My best guess is that it was mentioned in Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to be Wrong” in the section about Grandi’s series. Unfortunately I only have the audiobook version of “How not to be Wrong” and don’t know how to search it!

(b) first passage

The remark beginning at “It is plain . . . ” caught my attention.  This is right at the beginning of the book – section 1.3.   The statement:

“it does not occur to a modern mathematician that a collection of mathematical symbols should have a ‘meaning’ until one has been assigned to it by definition.”

also felt very powerful to me.

(c) second passage

The continuation of the previous page is also important – the point about Cauchy was definitely mentioned in “How not to be Wrong” as well.

(d) third passage

 

For the third passage we have to go much later in the book – nearly to the end, in fact.  The passage here – 13.10.11, in particular – shows the strange result.  Not in a Numberphile video, or some other internet video, but in a math textbook by G. H. Hardy:

(e) fourth passage

Finally – and this really is just about the last page of the book – section 13.17 provides a word of caution and an example of what can go wrong playing around with these divergent infinite series.

 

So, I’m going to spend the next few days and maybe even the next few weeks thinking about how to share some sort of idea about this strange series with my son.  I’ll welcome any suggestions!