A Conway Puzzle Solution (And Some Hints for the Other Puzzle)

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Two weeks ago, in honor of mathematician and puzzly spirit John Horton Conway, we shared two of his favorite brain teasers and challenged our fellow PuzzleNationers.

So today, we happily share the solution for puzzle #1, The Miracle Builders.

I had a window in the north wall of my house. It was a perfect square, 1 meter wide and 1 meter high. But this window never let in enough light. So I hired this firm, the Miracle Builders, who performed the impossible. They remodeled the window so it let in more light. When when they’d finished the window was a perfect square, 1 meter high and 1 meter wide.

How did they do it?

Both windows are perfect squares, 1 meter wide and 1 meter high. So how can there be a difference in the amount of light?

The trick of this puzzle is in the description. Although the original window was a perfect square, the dimensions of the square aren’t 1 meter by 1 meter. No, it was a square placed like a diamond, with one corner directly above its opposite. So the 1 meter dimensions were the diagonals, not the sides.

All the Miracle Builders had to do was build a square window in the usual arrangement (two sides horizontal, two sides vertical) with dimensions of 1 meter by 1 meter. That creates a larger window (with a diagonal of √2m) and allows more light.

Very tricky indeed.


We had several solvers who successfully cracked the Miracle Builders puzzle, but there was less success with puzzle #2, The Ten Divisibilities.

So, in addition to the original puzzle, we’re going to post some solving hints for those intrepid solvers who want another crack at the puzzle.

The Ten Divisibilities

I have a ten digit number, abcdefghij. Each of the digits is different, and:

  • a is divisible by 1
  • ab is divisible by 2
  • abc is divisible by 3
  • abcd is divisible by 4
  • abcde is divisible by 5
  • abcdef is divisible by 6
  • abcdefg is divisible by 7
  • abcdefgh is divisible by 8
  • abcdefghi is divisible by 9
  • abcdefghij is divisible by 10

What’s my number?

[To clarify: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, and j are all single digits. Each digit from 0 to 9 is represented by exactly one letter. The number abcdefghij is a ten-digit number whose first digit is a, second digit is b, and so on. It does not mean that you multiply a x b x c x…]

Here’s a few hints that should help whittle down the possibilities for any frustrated solvers:

-If you add all the digits in a number, and the total is divisible by 3, then that number is also divisible by 3.
-If the last two digits of a number are divisible by 4, then that number is divisible by 4.
-If the last three digits of a number are divisible by 8, then that number is divisible by 8.

Good luck, and happy puzzling!


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Two Brain Teasers, Courtesy of Conway

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Last week, we penned a post celebrating the life and puzzly legacy of mathematician John Horton Conway, and several of our fellow PuzzleNationers reached out with their own thoughts or questions about Conway.

One recurring subject was about his love of puzzles and what kind of puzzles he enjoyed solving. So, naturally, I went hunting for some of Conway’s favorite puzzles.

As it turns out, Alex Bellos of The Guardian had me covered. Alex has a recurring puzzle feature on The Guardian‘s website where brain teasers and other mental trickery awaits intrepid solvers.

Years ago, Alex had asked Conway for suggestions for his column, and Conway offered up two tricky puzzles.

And now, I happily share them with you.


#1: The Miracle Builders

I had a window in the north wall of my house. It was a perfect square, 1 meter wide and 1 meter high. But this window never let in enough light. So I hired this firm, the Miracle Builders, who performed the impossible. They remodeled the window so it let in more light. When when they’d finished the window was a perfect square, 1 meter high and 1 meter wide.

How did they do it?


#2: The Ten Divisibilities

I have a ten digit number, abcdefghij. Each of the digits is different.

The following is also true:

  • a is divisible by 1
  • ab is divisible by 2
  • abc is divisible by 3
  • abcd is divisible by 4
  • abcde is divisible by 5
  • abcdef is divisible by 6
  • abcdefg is divisible by 7
  • abcdefgh is divisible by 8
  • abcdefghi is divisible by 9
  • abcdefghij is divisible by 10

What’s my number?

[To clarify: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, and j are all single digits. Each digit from 0 to 9 is represented by exactly one letter. The number abcdefghij is a ten-digit number whose first digit is a, second digit is b, and so on. It does not mean that you multiply a x b x c x…]


Did you solve one or both of these fiendish mind ticklers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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Celebrating the Puzzly Legacy of John Horton Conway

The worlds of puzzles and mathematics overlap more than you might think. I’m not just talking about word problems or mathy brain teasers like the Birthday Puzzle or the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance.

For twenty-five years, Martin Gardner penned a column in Scientific American called Mathematical Games, adding a marvelous sense of puzzly spirit and whimsy to the field of mathematics, exploring everything from the works of M.C. Escher to visual puzzles like the mobius strip and tangrams. He was also a champion of recreational math, the concept that there are inherently fun and entertaining ways to do math, not just homework, analysis, and number crunching.

And on more than one occasion, Gardner turned to the genius and innovative thinking of John Horton Conway for inspiration.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Conway was best known as a mathematician, but that one word fails to encapsulate either his creativity or the depth of his devotion to the field. Conway was a pioneer, contributing to some mathematical fields (geometry and number theory among them), vastly expanding what could be accomplished in other fields (particularly game theory), and even creating new fields (like cellular automata).

Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, Simon Kochen said, “He was like a butterfly going from one thing to another, always with magical qualities to the results.” The Guardian described him in equally glowing terms as “a cross between Archimedes, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí.”

lifep

[Image courtesy of Cornell.edu.]

His most famous creation is The Game of Life, a model that not only visually details how algorithms work, but explores how cells and biological forms evolve and interact.

Essentially, imagine a sheet of graph paper. In The Game of Life, you choose a starting scenario, then watch the game proceed according to certain rules:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if by underpopulation.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

The process plays out from your starting point completely without your intervention, spiraling and expanding outward.

It’s the ultimate if-then sequence that can proceed unhindered for generations. It is a literal launchpad for various potential futures based on a single choice. It’s mind-bending and simple all at once. (And you can try it yourself here!)

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[Image courtesy of Sign-Up.To.]

But that’s far from Conway’s only contribution to the world of puzzles.

Not only did he analyze and explore puzzles like the Soma cube and Peg Solitaire, but he created or had a hand in creating numerous other puzzles that expanded upon mathematical concepts.

I could delve into creations like Hackenbush, the Angel Problem, Phutball/Philosopher’s Football, Conway’s Soldiers, and more — and perhaps I will in the future — but I’d like to focus on one of his most charming contributions: Sprouts.

Sprouts is a pencil-and-paper strategy game where players try to keep the game going by drawing a line between two dots on the paper and adding a new dot somewhere along that line.

The rules are simple, but the gameplay can quickly become tricky:

  • The line may be straight or curved, but must not touch or cross itself or any other line.
  • The new spot cannot be placed on top of one of the endpoints of the new line. Thus the new spot splits the line into two shorter lines.
  • No spot may have more than three lines attached to it.

Check out this sample game:

sprouts

[Image courtesy of Fun Mines.]

It’s a perfect example of the playfulness Conway brought to the mathematical field and teaching. The game is strategic, easy to learn, difficult to master, and encourages repeated engagement.

In a piece about Conway, Princeton professor Manjul Bhargava said, “I learned very quickly that playing games and working on mathematics were closely intertwined activities for him, if not actually the same activity.”

He would carry all sorts of bits and bobs that would assist him in explaining different concepts. Dice, ropes, decks of cards, a Slinky… any number of random objects were mentioned as potential teaching tools.

Professor Joseph Kohn shared a story about Conway’s enthusiasm for teaching and impressive span of knowledge. Apparently, Conway was on his way to a large public lecture. En route, he asked his companions what topic he should cover. Imagine promising to do a lecture with no preparation at all, and deciding on the way what it would be about.

Naturally, after choosing a topic in the car, the lecture went off without a hitch. He improvised the entire thing.

Of course, you would expect nothing less from a man who could recite pi from memory to more than 1100 digits? Or who, at a moment’s notice, could calculate the day of the week for any given date (employing a technique he called his Doomsday algorithm).


Conway unfortunately passed away earlier this month, due to complications from COVID-19, at the age of 82.

His contributions to the worlds of mathematics and puzzles, not to mention his tireless support of recreational math, cannot be overstated. His work and his play will not soon be forgotten.

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[Image courtesy of Macleans.]

If you’d like to learn more about Conway, be sure to check out Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts.

[My many thanks to friend of the blog Andrew Haynes for suggesting today’s subject and contributing notes and sources.]


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