This blog is about Simon, a young gifted mathematician and programmer, who had to move from Amsterdam to Antwerp to be able to study at the level that fits his talent, i.e. homeschool. Visit https://simontiger.com

“What is the chance that two people in a group of, say, 30 people would have their birthday on the same day?” I asked Simon as we were sitting on a bench by the river Schelde late last night, waiting for his Dad and sister to arrive by boat. The reason for this question was that one of the professors at Simon’s MathsJam club turned out to have celebrated his birthday exactly on the same day as I the week before. Besides I was afraid of Simon getting bored just sitting there, “enjoying the warm evening”. At first, I thought he didn’t hear my question and repeated myself a couple of times. Then I noticed he was so silent simply because he was completely immersed in the birthday problem.

Eventually, at that time already on Antwerp’s central square, Simon screamed with joy as he told me the formula he came up with involved triangle numbers! “It’s one minus 364/365 to the power of the 29th triangle number!” he shouted. “It’s a binomial coefficient, the choose function!”

I have composed a piece of music based on the Fibonacci sequence, using modular arithmetic (I assigned numbers from 0-6, the remainders after ÷ by 7, to notes C-B, i.e. 1-C, 2-D, 3-E, 4-F, 5-G, 6-A, 0-B. Then I added harmonies to the left hand). I noticed that after 16 notes, the sequence comes back to where it started!

But what really amazed me, is:

> I tried the same with Lucas #s, and Double fibonacci #s, and it always came back to where it started! Not only that, but always with the same length of period as well! It’s amazing!!!!

So, when you see something like this, you try to go over to a whiteboard and prove it, right? This is exactly what I did. In the vid below, you can see my proof of why this happens. I also analyze it a bit more, by seeing what is special of the Fibonacci #s, and also try ÷ by different numbers, instead of 7.

Disclaimer: Numberphile has already done a musical piece based on the Fibonacci numbers and a discussion of Pesano periods. What’s specific to my video:

* Trying different fibonacci-style sequences * Proof * What’s then special about the Fibonacci #s * Making a table of different divisors * (And, mathematics-aside, doing my composition in a more mathematical way, by being more strict about the melody)

This is a project that Simon started a few weeks ago but never finished, so I think it’s time I archive it here. It’s based upon this wonderful Numberphile video, in which Ben Sparks shows a curious math problem – a game of cat and mouse – in a computer simulation he’d built. The setting is that the mouse is swimming in a round pond and is trying to escape from a cat that is running around the pond. What is the strategy that the mouse should apply to escape, considering that it swims at a quarter of the speed the cat runs?

Simon came up with his own code to recreate the simulation from the Numberphile video. In the four fragments I recorded, he showcases what he has built. Please ignore my silly questions, at the time of the recording I hadn’t viewed the Numberphile video yet and had no idea what the problem entailed.

Monday morning Simon showed me the Chaos Game: he created three random dots on a sheet of paper (the corners of a triangle) and was throwing dice to determine where all additional dots would appear, always half-way between the previous dot and one of the corners of the triangle.

Very soon, he found it too much work to continue and I though he gave up. Later the same day, however, he suddenly produced the same game in Codea, the points filling in much faster than when he did it manually, yet following exactly the same algorithm. To my surprise, what resulted from this seemingly random scattering of dots was a beautiful Serpinski triangle.

Walking home from the swimming pool (where he and Neva had been jumping into the water exactly 24 times, calling out all the permutations of 1,2,3 and 4), Simon suddenly stopped to tell me that some day, mathematics may become engulfed by computer science. Apparently, this was what he was thinking about the whole time he kept silent on the way. Once we got home I sat down to listen to the elaborate proof he had coined for his hypothesis. Here is comes, in his own words:

Someday mathematics may become computer science because most of mathematics uses simple equations and stuff like that, but computer science uses algorithms instead. And of course, algorithms are more powerful than equations. Let me just give you an example.

There’s this set of numbers called algebraic numbers, and there’s this set of numbers called computable numbers. The algebraic numbers are everything you can make with simple equations (finite polynomials), so not like trig numbers, which are actually infinite polynomials, just simple finite equations with arithmetic and power. Computable numbers, however, are a set of numbers that you can actually make with a finite algorithm. It may not represent a finite equation, but the rules for the equation have to be finite. So the algorithm that generates that equation has to be finite. It’s pretty easy to see that every algebraic number is by definition computable. Because the algorithm would just basically be the equation itself.

Is every computable number algebraic? Well, we can easily disprove that. It took very long to prove that Pi is not algebraic, that it is transcendental, as it’s called. But Pi is computable, of course, because, well, that’s how we know what Pi is, to 26 trillion decimal places. So there you go. That’s a number that is computable but not algebraic. So the Euler diagram now looks like this:

Now we look back at the beginning and we see that algebraic numbers have to do with equations and computable numbers have to do with algorithms. And because the set of all algebraic numbers is in the set of all computable numbers as we’ve just proved, the set of computable numbers will have more numbers than algebraic numbers. We have given just one example of how algorithms are more powerful than equations.

What about the mathematics that deals with numbers that are incomputable? – I asked.

Well, that’s set theory, a different branch of mathematics. I meant applied mathematics, the mathematics that has application.

Simon believes that he has found a mistake in one of the installations at the Technopolis science museum. Or at least that the background description of the exhibit lacks a crucial piece of info. The exhibit that allows to simultaneously roll three equal-weight balls down three differently shaped tracks, with the start and the end at identical height in all the three tracks, supposes that the ball in the steepest track reaches the end the quickest. The explanation on the exhibit says that it is because that ball accelerates the most. Simon has noticed, however, that the middle track highly resembles a cycloid and says a cycloid is known to be the fastest descent, also called the Brachistochrone Curve in mathematics and physics.

In Simon’s own words:

You need the track to be steep, because then it will accelerate more – that’s right. But it also has to be quite a short track, otherwise it takes long to get from A to B – which is not in the explanation. It’s not the steepest track, it’s the balance between the shortest track and the steepest track.

Galileo Galilei thought that it is the arc of a circle. But then, Johan Bernoulli took over, and proved that the cycloid is the fastest.

We’ve also made some slow motion footage of us using the exhibit (you can see that the cycloid is slightly faster, but as far as I can tell, it’s not precision-made, so it wasn’t the fastest track every time): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Brub0FnpmQ

I hope that you could mention the brachistochrone/ cycloid in your exhibit explanation. I don’t think you can include the proof, because for such a general audience, it can’t fit on a single postcard!

Sunday at the beach, Simon was reenacting the 5 doors and a cat puzzle (he had learned this puzzle from the Mind Your Decisions channel). The puzzle is about guessing behind which door the cat is hiding in as few guesses as possible, while the cat is allowed to move one door further after every wrong guess.

“Here’s a fun fact!” Simon said all of a sudden. “If you add up all the grains of sand on all the beaches all over the world, you are going to get several quintillion sand grains or several times 10^18!” He then proceeded to try to calculate how many sand grains there might be at the beach around us…

In the evening, while having a meal by the sea, Simon challenged Dad with a Brilliant.org problem he particularly liked:

Simon’s explanation sheet (The general formulas are written by Simon, the numbers underneath the table are his Dad’s, who just couldn’t believe Simon’s counterintuitive solution at first and wanted check the concrete sums. He later accepted his defeat):

Simon is looking at his subscribers count on YouTube. We speculate if he gets to 1000 before the end of the academic year. Simon tells me that’s because subscriber count is just another example of Benford’s law in action. What is Benford’s law? – I ask.

“If you take some data that spans a few orders of magnitude and take the leading digits of all numbers, then you’re most likely not going to get a uniform distribution. Instead, 30% of the time, the numbers will start with a 1, a little bit less of the time – with a 2, even less – with a 3, and so on all the way to 9 (which has a low chance of occurring). For example, the populations of countries would follow that law. If something is not random enough, though (like human height in meters), then it wouldn’t follow that law. If something is too random, it also wouldn’t follow that law.”

Simon explains further: “Consider YouTube subscriber count over time. If you have 100 subscribers, then to get up to 200 is an increase of 100% (which is pretty big). But to get from 200 to 300 is only a 50% increase. From 900 to 1000 is just 11 %.”.

Then his dad asks: “What about going from 1000 subscribers to 1100 subscribers?”

“Well, Benford’s law only cares about the leading digit (and that’s what you want to increase as well). So you don’t want to increase from 1000 to 1100, you want to increase from 1000 to 2000! In other words, start a new Benford’s law ‘Epoch’.”