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3 Solved Math Mysteries (and 2 That Still Plague Us)

Mathematics has fascinated the human race nearly as long as our existence. Some of the coincidences between numbers and their applications are incredibly neat, and some of the most deceptively simple ones continue to stump us and even our modern computers. Here are three famous math problems that people struggled with for a long time but were finally resolved, followed by two simple concepts that continue to boggle mankind's best minds.

1. Fermat's Last Theorem

In 1637, Pierre de Fermat scribbled a note in the margin of his copy of the book Arithmetica. He wrote (conjectured, in math terms) that for an integer n greater that two, the equation an + bn = cn had no whole number solutions. He wrote a proof for the special case n = 4, and claimed to have a simple, "marvellous" proof that would make this statement true for all integers. However, Fermat was fairly secretive about his mathematic endeavors, and no one discovered his conjecture until his death in 1665. No trace was found of the proof Fermat claimed to have for all numbers, and so the race to prove his conjecture was on. For the next 330 years, many great mathematicians, such as Euler, Legendre, and Hilbert, stood and fell at the foot of what came to be known as Fermat's Last Theorem. Some mathematicians were able to prove the theorem for more special cases, such as n = 3, 5, 10, and 14. Proving special cases gave a false sense of satisfaction; the theorem had to be proved for all numbers. Mathematicians began to doubt that there were sufficient techniques in existence to prove theorem. Eventually, in 1984, a mathematician named Gerhard Frey noted the similarity between the theorem and a geometrical identity, called an elliptical curve. Taking into account this new relationship, another mathematician, Andrew Wiles, set to work on the proof in secrecy in 1986. Nine years later, in 1995, with help from a former student Richard Taylor, Wiles successfully published a paper proving Fermat's Last Theorem, using a recent concept called the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture. 358 years later, Fermat's Last Theorem had finally been laid to rest.

Enigma2. The Enigma Machine

The Enigma machine was developed at the end of World War I by a German engineer, named Arthur Scherbius, and was most famously used to encode messages within the German military before and during World War II.
The Enigma relied on rotors to rotate each time a keyboard key was pressed, so that every time a letter was used, a different letter was substituted for it; for example, the first time B was pressed a P was substituted, the next time a G, and so on. Importantly, a letter would never appear as itself-- you would never find an unsubstituted letter. The use of the rotors created mathematically driven, extremely precise ciphers for messages, making them almost impossible to decode. The Enigma was originally developed with three substitution rotors, and a fourth was added for military use in 1942. The Allied Forces intercepted some messages, but the encoding was so complicated there seemed to be no hope of decoding.

Enter mathematician Alan Turing, who is now considered the father of modern computer science. Turing figured out that the Enigma sent its messages in a specific format: the message first listed settings for the rotors. Once the rotors were set, the message could be decoded on the receiving end. Turing developed a machine called the Bombe, which tried several different combinations of rotor settings, and could statistically eliminate a lot of legwork in decoding an Enigma message. Unlike the Enigma machines, which were roughly the size of a typewriter, the Bombe was about five feet high, six feet long, and two feet deep. It is often estimated that the development of the Bombe cut the war short by as much as two years.
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3. The Four Color Theorem

The four color theorem was first proposed in 1852. A man named Francis Guthrie was coloring a map of the counties of England when he noticed that it seemed he would not need more than four ink colors in order to have no same-colored counties touching each other on the map. The conjecture was first credited in publication to a professor at University College, who taught Guthrie's brother. While the theorem worked for the map in question, it was deceptively difficult to prove. One mathematician, Alfred Kempe, wrote a proof for the conjecture in 1879 that was regarded as correct for 11 years, only to be disproven by another mathematician in 1890.

By the 1960s a German mathematician, Heinrich Heesch, was using computers to solve various math problems. Two other mathematicians, Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken at the University of Illinois, decided to apply Heesch's methods to the problem. The four-color theorem became the first theorem to be proved with extensive computer involvement in 1976 by Appel and Haken.

...and 2 That Still Plague Us

Picture 11. Mersenne and Twin Primes

Prime numbers are a ticklish business to many mathematicians. An entire mathematic career these days can be spent playing with primes, numbers divisible only by themselves and 1, trying to divine their secrets. Prime numbers are classified based on the formula used to obtain them. One popular example is Mersenne primes, which are obtained by the formula 2n - 1 where n is a prime number; however, the formula does not always necessarily produce a prime, and there are only 47 known Mersenne primes, the most recently discovered one having 12,837,064 digits. It is well known and easily proved that there are infinitely many primes out there; however, what mathematicians struggle with is the infinity, or lack thereof, of certain types of primes, like the Mersenne prime. In 1849, a mathematician named de Polignac conjectures that there might be infinitely many primes where p is a prime, and p + 2 is also a prime. Prime numbers of this form are known as twin primes. Because of the generality if this statement, it should be provable; however, mathematicians continue to chase its certainty. Some derivative conjectures, such as the Hardy-Littlewood conjecture, have offered a bit of progress in the pursuit of a solution, but no definitive answers have arisen so far.

Picture 32. Odd Perfect Numbers

Perfect numbers, discovered by the Euclid of Greece and his brotherhood of mathematicians, have a certain satisfying unity. A perfect number is defined as a positive integer that is the sum of its positive divisors; that is to say, if you add up all the numbers that divide a number, you get that number back. One example would be the number28— it is divisible by 1, 2, 4, 7, and 14, and 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14 = 28. In the 18th century, Euler proved that the formula 2(n-1)(2n-1) gives all even perfect numbers. The question remains, though, whether there exist any odd perfect numbers. A couple of conclusions have been drawn about odd perfect numbers, if they do exist; for example, an odd perfect number would not be divisible by 105, its number of divisors must be odd, it would have to be of the form 12m + 1 or 36m + 9, and so on. After over two thousand years, mathematicians still struggle to pin down the odd perfect number, but seem to still be quite far from doing so.

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5 Ways You Do Complex Math in Your Head Without Realizing It
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The one thing that people who love math and people who hate math tend to agree on is this: You're only really doing math if you sit down and write formal equations. This idea is so widely embraced that to suggest otherwise is "to start a fight," says Maria Droujkova, math educator and founder of Natural Math, a site for kids and parents who want to incorporate math into their daily lives. Mathematicians cherish their formal proofs, considering them the best expression of their profession, while the anti-math don't believe that much of the math they studied in school applies to "real life."

But in reality, "we do an awful lot of things in our daily lives that are profoundly mathematical, but that may not look that way on the surface," Christopher Danielson, a Minnesota-based math educator and author of a number of books, including Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies, tells Mental Floss. Our mathematical thinking includes not just algebra or geometry, but trigonometry, calculus, probability, statistics, and any of the at least 60 types [PDF] of math out there. Here are five examples.

1. COOKING // ALGEBRA

Of all the maths, algebra seems to draw the most ire, with some people even writing entire books on why college students shouldn't have to endure it because, they claim, it holds the students back from graduating. But if you cook, you're likely doing algebra. When preparing a meal, you often have to think proportionally, and "reasoning with proportions is one of the cornerstones of algebraic thinking," Droujkova tells Mental Floss.

You're also thinking algebraically whenever you're adjusting a recipe, whether for a larger crowd or because you have to substitute or reduce ingredients. Say, for example, you want to make pancakes, but you only have two eggs left and the recipe calls for three. How much flour should you use when the original recipe calls for one cup? Since one cup is 8 ounces, you can figure this out using the following algebra equation: n/8 : 2/3.

algebraic equation illustrates adjustment of a recipe
Lucy Quintanilla

However, when thinking proportionally, you can just reason that since you have one-third less eggs, you should just use one-third less flour.

You're also doing that proportional thinking when you consider the cooking times of the various courses of your meal and plan accordingly so all the elements of your dinner are ready at the same time. For example, it will usually take three times as long to cook rice as it will a flattened chicken breast, so starting the rice first makes sense.

"People do mathematics in their own way," Droujkova says, "even if they cannot do it in a very formalized way."

2. LISTENING TO MUSIC // PATTERN THEORY AND SYMMETRY

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The making of music involves many different types of math, from algebra and geometry to group theory and pattern theory and beyond, and a number of mathematicians (including Pythagoras and Galileo) and musicians have connected the two disciplines (Stravinsky claimed that music is "something like mathematical thinking").

But simply listening to music can make you think mathematically too. When you recognize a piece of music, you are identifying a pattern of sound. Patterns are a fundamental part of math; the branch known as pattern theory is applied to everything from statistics to machine learning.

Danielson, who teaches kids about patterns in his math classes, says figuring out the structure of a pattern is vital for understanding math at higher levels, so music is a great gateway: "If you're thinking about how two songs have similar beats, or time signatures, or you're creating harmonies, you're working on the structure of a pattern and doing some really important mathematical thinking along the way."

So maybe you weren't doing math on paper if you were debating with your friends about whether Tom Petty was right to sue Sam Smith in 2015 over "Stay With Me" sounding a lot like "I Won't Back Down," but you were still thinking mathematically when you compared the songs. And that earworm you can't get out of your head? It follows a pattern: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, end.

When you recognize these kinds of patterns, you're also recognizing symmetry (which in a pop song tends to involve the chorus and the hook, because both repeat). Symmetry [PDF] is the focus of group theory, but it's also key to geometry, algebra, and many other maths.

3. KNITTING AND CROCHETING // GEOMETRIC THINKING

six steps of crocheting a hyperbolic plane
Cheryl, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Droujkova, an avid crocheter, she says she is often intrigued by the very mathematical discussions fellow crafters have online about the best patterns for their projects, even if they will often insist they are awful at math or uninterested in it. And yet, such crafts cannot be done without geometric thinking: When you knit or crochet a hat, you're creating a half sphere, which follows a geometric formula.

Droujkova isn't the only math lover who has made the connection between geometry and crocheting. Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina found crocheting to be the perfect way to illustrate the geometry of a hyperbolic plane, or a surface that has a constant negative curvature, like a lettuce leaf. Hyperbolic geometry is also used in navigation apps, and explains why flat maps distort the size of landforms, making Greenland, for example, look far larger on most maps than it actually is.

4. PLAYING POOL // TRIGONOMETRY

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If you play billiards, pool, or snooker, it's very likely that you are using trigonometric reasoning. Sinking a ball into a pocket by using another ball involves understanding not just how to measure angles by sight but triangulation, which is the cornerstone of trigonometry. (Triangulation is a surprisingly accurate way to measure distance. Long before powered flight was possible, surveyors used triangulation to measure the heights of mountains from their bases and were off by only a matter of feet.)

In a 2010 paper [PDF], Louisiana mathematician Rick Mabry studied the trigonometry (and basic calculus) of pool, focusing on the straight-in shot. In a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana, he scribbled equations on napkins for each shot, and he calculated the most difficult straight-in shot of all. Most experienced pool players would say it’s one where the target ball is halfway between the pocket and the cue ball. But that, according to Mabry’s equations, turned out not to be true. The hardest shot of all had a surprising feature: The distance from the cue ball to the pocket was exactly 1.618 times the distance from the target ball to the pocket. That number is the golden ratio, which is found everywhere in nature—and, apparently, on pool tables.

Do you need to consider the golden ratio when deciding where to place the cue ball? Nope, unless you want to prove a point, or set someone else up to lose. You're doing the trig automatically. The pool sharks at the bar must have known this, because someone threw away Mabry's math napkins.

5. RE-TILING THE BATHROOM // CALCULUS

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Many students don't get to calculus in high school, or even in college, but a cornerstone of that branch of math is optimization—or figuring out how to get the most precise use of a space or chunk of time.

Consider a home improvement project where you're confronted with tiling around something whose shape doesn't fit a geometric formula like a circle or rectangle, such as the asymmetric base of a toilet or freestanding sink. This is where the fundamental theorem of calculus—which can be used to calculate the precise area of an irregular object—comes in handy. When thinking about how those tiles will best fit around the curve of that sink or toilet, and how much of each tile needs to be cut off or added, you're employing the kind of reasoning done in a Riemann sum.

Riemann sums (named after a 19th-century German mathematician) are crucial to explaining integration in calculus, as tangible introductions to the more precise fundamental theorem. A graph of a Riemann sum shows how the area of a curve can be found by building rectangles along the x, or horizontal axis, first up to the curve, and then over it, and then averaging the distance between the over- and underlap to get a more precise measurement. 

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The Math Puzzle That’s Driving the Internet Bananas
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Here at Mental Floss, we love a good brain teaser—and clearly we’re not alone. From cows and chickens to river crossings, we’ve never met a riddle we didn’t want to solve—even if it was originally meant for a 5-year-old. The Bananas, Clock, Hexagon Viral Logic Puzzle, which math puzzle enthusiast Presh Talwalkar posted to his Mind Your Decisions blog, is the latest riddle to have us admittedly stumped.

According to Talwalkar, 99 percent of the people who attempt to solve the problem fail, leaving the remaining one percent to be dubbed geniuses for figuring it out. Which side will you land on?

The key to solving this puzzle is to look closely. We’ll give you a minute to do just that (or you can start the video below—it will give you a little time before giving anything away).

Now it’s time to come up with your answer. We’ll give you another minute …

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

So what did you come up with?

If you answered 38, congratulations—you might be a genius.

If you answered something else, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Where most people seem to be going wrong with the problem is by not looking at the images closely enough when attempting to assign a numerical value. Specifically: In the last line of the problem, all of the images—the clock, the bananas, and the hexagon—are all slightly different than the images shown in the previous lines. If you noticed this, then you probably realized that the bunch of bananas in lines one, two, and three have a different value than the fruit seen on line four. Same goes for the clock and the hexagons. Which makes this as much a visual puzzle as it a math problem.

Finish watching the video above for Talwalkar’s detailed explanation of how to solve the problem. Then stump your friends!

[h/t: Mind Your Decisions]

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