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

This has been one of Simon’s most ambitious (successful) projects so far and a beautiful grand finale of 2019, also marking his channel reaching 1K subscribers. The project – approximating Euler’s number (e) in a very weird way – is based upon a Putnam exam puzzle that Simon managed to prove:

The main part of the project was inspired by 3Blue1Brown Grant Sanderson’s guest appearance on Numberphile called Darts in Higher Dimensions, showing how one’s probable score would end up being e to the power of pi/4. Simon automated the game and used the visualization to approximate e. Below is the main video Approximating pi and e with Randomness. You can run the project online at: https://editor.p5js.org/simontiger/present/fNl0aoDtW

Today, Simon returned to a problem he first encountered at a MathsJam in summer: “Pick random numbers between 0 and 1, until the sum exceeds 1. What is the expected number of numbers you’ll pick?” Back in June, Simon already knew the answer was e, but his attempt to prove it didn’t quite work back then. Today, he managed to prove his answer!

The same proof in a more concise way:

At MathsJam last night, Simon was really eager to show his proof to Rudi Penne, a professor from the University of Antwerp who was sitting next to Simon last time he gave it a go back in June. Rudi kept Simon’s notes and told me he really admired the way Simon’s reasoning spans borders between subjects (the way Simon can start with combinatorics and jump to geometry), something that many students nurtured within the structured subject system are incapable of doing, Rudi said. Who needs borders?

Later the same evening, Simon had a blast demonstrating the proof to a similar problem to a larger grateful and patient audience, including Professor David Eelbode. The first proof was Simon’s own, the second problem (puzzle with a shrinking bullseye) and proof came from Grant Sanderson (3Blue1Brown) on Numberphile.

“Don’t allow any constraints to dull his excitement and motivation!” Rudi told me as Simon was waiting for us to leave. “That’s a huge responsibility you’ve got there, in front of the world”.

Take any real number and call it x. Then plug it into the equation f(x) = 1 + 1/x and keep doing it many times in a row, plugging the result back into the equation.

At some point you will see that you arrive at a value that will become stable and not change anymore. And that value will be… φ, the golden ratio!

But this equation also has another answer, -1/φ. If you plug that value into the equation, it will be the same, too. The real magic happens once you have rounded the -1/φ down (or up), i.e. once what you plug into the equation is no longer exactly -1/φ. What happens is that, if you keep going, you will eventually reach… φ as your answer!

Simon saw this interesting fact in a video by 3Blue1Brown and then came up with a proof as to why it happens.

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!

From where I got this I called this sketch Pool_pi because the original paper about this (written in 2003) was called something like Pi in Pool. I learned about this from a recent 3Blue1Brown series:

The idea The idea is 2 blocks on a frictionless surface. One slides towards the other, that is facing a wall. All collisions are perfectly elastic.

If the two blocks have the same mass, you can quickly calculate that there will be 3 collisions.

If the one block is 100x the other, it just so happens that there will be 31 collisions.

If the one block is 10000x the other, there will be 314 collisions (I get tired of making graphics). If the one block is 1000000x the other, there will be 3141 collisions.

That’s pi!

The issue!
In my own code, I first used Box2D.
It worked for mass ratios of 1 and 100, but it didn’t work for 10000.

Then I started writing my own physics engine, hoping to fix this issue. But it was even worse. I couldn’t even get 100 to work.

Then I figured that the blocks are colliding too frequently. So I slowed the 1st block down.
I could get 100 to work this way, but not 10000.

Simon loves looking at things geometrically. Even when solving word problems, he tends to see them as a graph. And naturally, since he started doing more math related to machine learning, graphs have occupied an even larger portion of his brain! Below are his notes in Microsoft Paint today (from memory):

Slope of Line:

Steepness of Curve:

An awesome calculator Simon discovered online at desmos.com/calculator that allows you to make mobile and static graphs:

Yesterday’s notes on the chi function (something he learned through 3Blue1Brown‘s videos on Taylor polynomials):