Myth, Magic and Math

Most of us don’t really believe in magic. Not the Harry Potter kind, anyway. However, we’ve all probably seen some rather astounding feats performed by magicians on TV (does David Blaine ring a bell?). And when we don’t understand how the “magic” works, we often think to ourselves, Well, there’s gotta be some cheap trick to it; secret trapdoors and mirrors- something along those lines. Two things about this sentiment strike me as rather strange. The first is the inversion of the roles of magic and science/craftsmanship that takes place here. For almost the entire span of human history, peoples and cultures have attributed the occurrence of enigmatic events to magical powers. The Ancient Greeks believed that it was a god (with supreme magical powers) who carried the sun around the Earth; the Amerindians saw Columbus’s guns as magical weapons; and so on. In other words, when people failed to comprehend the processes by which these events and contraptions worked, they turned to magic as an explanation. Today, however, when we are faced with magical acts beyond our comprehension, we turn to science as an explanation. Thus, rather than to accept magic, we would prefer to believe that smoke and mirrors are behind the magician’s vanishing act. Such is the extent to which the scientific worldview has pervaded our consciousness. The second notable fact about people’s reactions to magic is their tendency to underestimate the value of the “tricks” that make theatrical magic possible. The realization that something perfectly ordinary is behind extraordinary magical acts is often accompanied by a wave of disappointment. And that’s despite the fact that most people never really believe in magic in the first place! In these cases, the fascination with the mystique of the unknowable overshadows the contentment that comes with actual knowledge. What’s strange about this is that people fail to realize that the mechanism that makes a magic trick possible is often far more interesting than the trick itself. A few months ago, I came across a computer program that claimed to be able to read people’s minds. And sure enough, it did manage to put up a reasonable semblance of telepathy. The “magicality” of the program, however, did not stand up under closer scrutiny, as I was soon able to uncover the trick that allowed it to work. And that’s where the fun really began. As you’ll soon see, there can be a lot of fascinating science hidden within these cheap magic tricks. And it probably makes more sense to admire the science behind them, rather than the possibility of magic.

The Amazing Mind-Reader
The Amazing Mind-Reader is a program that claims to be able to read your mind. To prove to you that it is actually able to do this, it asks you to pick a number, perform certain operations upon it, and think really hard about the result. Supposedly, the Amazing Mind-Reader is able to intercept your brainwaves and therefore tell you exactly what result you got, even though you never told it what number you began with. The exact setup of the program is given below.

Instructions Choose any two-digit number, add its digits together, and then subtract the total from your original number. For example, if you choose 23, you begin by adding 2 and 3, and then subtracting the total (5) from 23. When you have the final number, look it up on the chart below, and find the symbol that corresponds to it. Concentrate on the symbol. Once you have it clearly in your mind, click the NEXT button. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20  © £ ¥ © ∞  α ¥  µ © ¥ µ ∞  £ ¥ α  21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 µ £ ¤  α ¤ ¥ ∞ ∞ µ  © £ ∞ α ¥ µ  © ∞ 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 ∞  £ µ ¥ © α  ∞ µ ¥ α α ¥ ¤ © ∞ ∞ ¤ ¥ 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 © µ ¥ α  © ∞ £ ∞ £ α ¥ α ©  ¤ £ ¤ £ ¤ 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 ¥ µ ∞ © α ¥ £ ¤  ¤ £ ¤ α © ∞ ¤ £ ¤ ¥ ©

Once you do press NEXT, the program displays the symbol that you should have ended up with. And yes, it gets it right every time. Is this evidence of supernatural powers? Not quite. As we shall soon see, it’s more mathematical magic than it is supernatural magic.

Hidden (Immediately) Beneath the Surface…
First of all, allow me to amaze you with extraordinary powers of my own. Go back and follow the instructions that come with The Amazing Mind-Reader. Concentrate really hard on the symbol that you end up with. Now wait with bated breath as I read your mind… And the symbol that you ended up with is (a drum roll would not be out of place here):


Relax; I don’t actually have magical powers. But I was able to predict the symbol you would end up with because I know how this system works. And the really great thing is that it works on several different levels, each more fascinating than the last. In order to uncover the truth about The Amazing MindReader, you have to keep digging, right until you hit the gold. In fact, it isn’t very hard to figure out the first level at which this magic trick works. Try the entire process again, but this time start with a different number. Then do it again, with yet another number. A pattern should begin to emerge. You will probably notice that you end up with the same symbol every time. However, if you tried this with The Amazing Mind-Reader (meaning the actual program), you would end up with a different symbol each time- because the symbols in the given list would change- and the program would still know what you end up with. It’s just that I can’t show you that here. So, no, the solution to this problem does not lie in that direction. Instead, look closely at the values of the numbers you end up with (not the numbers you begin with). They all have something in common: they’re all multiples of 9. Furthermore, notice that when you start with a two-digit number, and subtract the sum of its individual digits from it, you cannot end up with a three-digit number. In fact, your final answer must be between 9 and 81 (since 10 is the smallest twodigit number and 99 is the largest). The final salient fact is that there are only 9 multiples of 9 between 9 and 81. Assign the same symbol to each one of those nine multiples every time, and you know that any unsuspecting victim of your magic trick will end up with that symbol. If you like, you can consider that to be the end of our quest to find the secret behind The Amazing MindReader. Start with any two-digit number, and you must end up with a multiple of 9. So all you have to do is assign the same symbol to every multiple of 9 in your list, and that’s the symbol that your victim (?) will have ended up with. You are now set to conquer the masses with your newfound magical prowess. However, the truth is that there are yet more revelations to be gleaned from this simple magic trick. In order to arrive at them, you must ask the right questions. Do not remain content with the insignificant stuff that lies immediately below the surface. Dig deeper.

What’s up With the Number 9?
We’ve just seen that whenever you subtract the sum of the two digits of a two-digit number from the original number, you always end up with a multiple of the number 9. As a matter of fact, this rule applies not only to two-digit numbers, but to all numbers, regardless of how many digits they have. For instance, take the number 4,335,286. The sum of its digits is 31. Subtract 31 from 4,335,286 and you get 4,335,255. And guess what, 4,335,255 is a multiple of 9! Weird, isn’t it? But it doesn’t end there. Those who regularly watched Sesame Street in their childhood (I readily confess myself to be a member of that demographic) may be familiar with another magical property of the number 9: multiply any number by 9, and the product will eventually collapse to 9. By “collapsing” to

9, what I mean is that if you add the digits of the number together, and then add the digits of that number together, and so on, you will eventually be left with the number 9. A demonstration will probably make things clearer. Say we begin by multiplying 4 by 9. The result is 45; now add the digits of the product together (4+5) and you get- well, 9. In the same way, the product of 13 and 9 (117) also collapses to 9 (as follows: 1+1+7=9). Finally, let’s multiply 49,726 by 9; the product is 447,534. Even this eventually collapses to 9, as shown below: 4+4+7+5+3+4= 27 2+7= 9 I understand perfectly if you’re starting to feel just a little paranoid. It’s as though the number 9 is everywhere; hiding behind every corner; watching, waiting for God knows what… Seriously, though, what is up with the number 9? No other number has these “magical” properties. Why should the number 9 have them? What is the source of 9’s powers? What does it intend to do with those powers? Those are all valid questions and- luckily for us- there are answers to them. Well, all of them except, perhaps, the last one; that shall remain a mystery for now. However, in order to understand the answers, one must first achieve a greater understanding of numbers themselves. The next section shall endeavour to elevate you to this higher plane of understanding.

The Nature of Numbers
We begin our spiritual journey by asking a simple question: What is One? Look around you and try to find a One. Or a Two, for that matter, or a Three. You will find that there isn’t really anything that you can point out as being a One, Two, Three, or any other number. This is, in itself, a bit of a revelation. Numbers do not exist in nature. They are a human invention, a way of thinking about things that do exist in nature. In my opinion, numbers supersede the wheel as humanity’s greatest invention. (Interestingly, though, they may not be an exclusively human invention. Research indicates that parrots and certain apes may have the ability to count.) Human beings intuitively see the world in terms of numbers. Most of us learn that we have two hands and five fingers on each hand long before we learn to read or write. However, the fact is that one must be able to write numbers down in some way if one wants to perform complicated calculations on them. In other words, a number system must be designed that allows the mental idea of numbers to be symbolically recorded on paper. Primitive Number Systems Now, there may be an unlimited number of ways that you could represent numbers on paper. At the most basic level is probably a system of tally marks, which, in a sense, just creates a simplified replica of the natural objects that are being viewed in terms of numbers. For instance, when a herder looks at a group of cows and thinks of them as being five cows, he records this information by drawing five lines on

his cave wall. Those five lines are really just a simplified image of the five cows. This simplistic number system does not allow for much mathematical manipulation of numbers. The Roman Number System Another number system that came to see widespread use (and is still being used today) is the one that uses Roman numerals to record numbers. This number system may have introduced the world to the idea of numerals, which are symbols that represent distinct numbers. The use of numerals sets the Roman number system far ahead of a basic tally system. You see, in a system based on tally-marks, every mark has the same value: one.1 Thus, a large number like ten (which is really just a group of Ones) is rather cumbersome to record, because you need such a large number of marks to do so. However, if you created a symbol that you decided to associate with a certain number of objects, then you no longer need a large amount of individual tally marks to record that particular number. That’s the advantage that the use of numerals gives you; they’re really just special symbols that are associated with different numbers. For instance, in the Roman number system, the symbol “X” was associated with ten objects. In addition, “V” represented five; “L” represented fifty, “C” represented a hundred, “D” represented five hundred, and “M” represented a thousand. Be careful to note that “X”, “V”, “C”, etc are not actually numbers; they’re just symbols that came to be associated with the mental idea of certain numbers. In fact, real numbers are completely independent of the number system used to record them on paper. The number ten is the same whether you write it as “10”, “X”, “lllll lllll”, “1010” (base 2), or “20” (base 5). An analogy that might help to make sense of this is the way that paper money works. Paper money is intrinsically worthless, just like the symbols used to represent a number have no intrinsic meaning of their own. Yet, paper money is considered valuable because it represents the ability to purchase a certain amount of goods that do have intrinsic value (like food or clothes). In the same way, it is only because we have chosen to associate certain symbols with actual numbers that we can use those symbols to substitute for the actual numbers in calculations. The Roman number system, although significantly more effective than the tally systems that came before it, nevertheless suffered from two major flaws. Firstly, the rules that defined the ways that different numerals combined to make a complete number were rather unwieldy. For instance, a “V” to the left of an “I” makes six, and a “V” to the right of an “I” makes four. At the same time, however, a “V” to the right of an “L” makes fifty-five, but a “V” to the left of an “L” does not make forty-five. Secondly, the Roman number system would have to create an infinite number of numerals to effectively deal with larger and larger numbers. To illustrate this, consider how the number fourteen thousand would be dealt with by the Roman system. Unless a new numeral were created to represent the number fourteen thousand (or a number close to it, such as ten thousand), the Roman system would partially degenerate into the tally system, writing the number as “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM”. Just imagine how long it would take to represent an even larger number, like one million- that’s a thousand “M”s!


In modern usage, the tally-based number system usually uses every fifth tally mark to create a group of five marks. In this discussion we assume that this procedure is not used.

The Hindu-Arabic Number System It was mainly because of these flaws that the Roman number system was eventually phased out in favour a new system, the Hindu-Arabic number system. The Hindu-Arabic system, like the Roman one, makes use of numerals, but it doesn’t require an infinite number of numerals to effectively deal with larger and larger numbers. At the heart of the Hindu-Arabic number system is the concept of placevalues, and that’s what makes the use of successively larger numbers of numerals unnecessary. The Hindu-Arabic system allows for an infinite number of places (with different place-values) to hold a fixed number of numerals. The rules that govern the relationship between different places are simple and easy to work with in calculations. Hence this new system could effectively deal with even very large numbers. Because of these advantages, the Hindu-Arabic number system is ubiquitous today’s world. Most people have even adopted the same symbols to represent the ten numerals used with this system (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 to represent the numbers zero to nine). However, as I’ve already stated, the system would have worked equally well with different symbols for these ten numerals. And that’s not all; the system would have worked even if there were more or fewer numerals than ten- but we’ll go into that in greater detail at a later stage. For now, let’s use the ten common numerals to try to get a feel for how the place-value system works. Using the place-value system, a new numeral is created for every number between zero and nine. For the number ten, however, a new numeral is not created. Instead, a new place is created; the tens place. Thus, the number ten is represented in this system by placing a “1” in the tens place, and a “0” in the ones place. The symbol “10” is decoded as one in the tens place (1 x 10=10) and zero in the ones place (0 x 1= 0), which totals ten. Similarly, 13 is decoded as one in the tens place (1 x 10= 10) and three in the ones place (3 x 1= 3), which totals thirteen. Since the largest numeral in the system (9) represents the number nine, the value of a new place must be ten times the value of the old place. To fully understand why this must be so, imagine that you are counting eggs.2 As you count from zero to nine, you simply change the numeral you use to record the number (from 0 to 1 to 2, and so on until 9); there’s no need to fiddle with places because you have numerals to represent every number between zero and nine. The problem arises when you reach your tenth egg, as that’s when you realize that you just don’t have a numeral to record the number ten. So here’s what you do: you take the tenth egg, add it to nine you already have, and create a group of ten eggs. Therefore, where you had ten individual eggs, you now have only one group of ten eggs. The tens place is now used to count the number of groups of eggs (each containing ten individual eggs) you have. Thus, for the tenth egg, you place “1” in the tens place- referring to the single group of ten that you have- and “0” in the ones place to signify that there are no more individually counted eggs. For eleven eggs, you would still have one group of ten, plus an additional ungrouped egg; thus eleven is represented as 11- one in the tens place and one in the ones place. And so on.


Experts advise against doing this before they are hatched if your goal is to ascertain the number of chickens you’ll end up with.

After you’ve counted to ninety-nine eggs, you have nine groups of ten eggs (i.e. 9 in the tens place, or “90”), and nine more individual eggs. When you count to the hundredth egg, it creates a new group of ten eggs (by adding one egg to the nine individual eggs you already have). However, here you are once again faced with the problem of not having a numeral to record the tenth group of ten eggs. To put it another way, you can’t put a ten in the tens place because there just isn’t a numeral for ten. Once again, therefore, what you have to do is to take the tenth group, add it to the nine groups you already have, and create a new, bigger group of one hundred eggs. So you now have one group of one hundred eggs, zero separate groups of ten, and zero separate individual eggs. That’s why a hundred is recorded with a one in the new place (the hundreds place), and zeroes in the tens and ones places: 100. Therefore, in the Hindu-Arabic number system, you are either counting individual objects, or groups of objects. And when you’re only using nine numerals, every tenth group must be used to create a larger group that contains ten of the smaller groups. Therefore, every place in the place-value system is ten times larger than the place that precedes it. That’s why the values of successive places in the system proceed as follows: Ones, Tens, Hundreds, Thousands, Ten Thousands, Hundred Thousands, and so on. Now that we’re a bit more familiar with the roots of our number system and the intricacies by which it works, we’re almost prepared to crack the Mysterious Case of the Number 9. (Do you even remember that that’s what we had originally set out to achieve?) There’s just one more thing we need to do. We must gaze deep into our past and ask ourselves a troubling question: What if…?

Variations on a Theme
As we’ve just discovered, the Hindu-Arabic number system allows for an infinite number of places with different place-values, but uses just ten numerals. Now here’s the interesting part: the system in no way depends upon there being exactly ten numerals. There is absolutely no reason for the system to not work with four numerals, or thirteen, or any other number of numerals. It’s just that, for some reason, at some point in human history, we chose to use only ten numerals. Perhaps the only explanation for this is that it is often convenient to use the digits of one’s hands for counting; and of course, we have a total of ten digits on our two hands. So what would our numbers have looked like if we hadn’t chosen to use ten numerals? Well our number system, with its ten numerals, is known as Base 10. To see how else things could have worked, let’s take a look at Base 4 and Base 12 in the Hindu-Arabic number system. As the name suggests, Base 4 only uses four numerals; and Base 12 uses twelve numerals (don’t worry, we’ll create two extra numerals for the purposes of this discussion). We begin by examining Base 4. Assume that the four numerals of Base 4 are the same as the first four numerals that we use in Base 10: 0, 1, 2 and 3. In this system, the ones place can be used only to record numbers up to the number three. To count to a fourth object, one group of four objects is created, and a “1” is placed in the fours place, which comes immediately after the ones place. The ones place is filled with a “0”. Hence the number four is recorded as “10” in Base 4. In the same way, every place in Base 4 has a value that is four times the value of the place before it. The successive place values are: ones, fours, sixteens, sixty-fours, and so

on. Here’s what the numbers zero to fifteen (and a few others) would have looked like if they were recorded in Base 4: Base 10 Base 4 0 0 1 1 2 2 3 3 4 10 5 11 6 12 7 13 8 20 9 21 10 22 11 23 12 30 13 31 14 32 15 33 52 310 214 3112 Base 10 Base 12 0 0 1 1 2 2 3 3 4 4 5 5 6 6 7 7 8 8 9 9 10 € 11 $ 12 10 13 11 14 13 15 14 52 44 214 15€

Reasoning along the same lines, we can also figure out what the numbers zero to fifteen would look like if they were written in Base 12. In creating the table above, we assume that the symbol “€” stands for the number ten, and the symbol “$” stands for the number eleven. Thus the twelve numerals used in Base 12 will be: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, €, $. The place values in Base 12 proceed as follows: ones, twelves, one-hundred-forty-fours, one-thousand-seven-hundred-twenty-eights, and so on. By now, you’ve probably got the hang of it. You’ve been acquainted with the basic rules that dictate how numbers work in the Hindu-Arabic number system; and you should understand that those rules remain the same regardless of the number of numerals that are arbitrarily created to record numbers.

The Final Revelation
You are now ready for the final revelation- the reason why the number 9 seems to have such special powers. The answer, quite simply, is that 9 is special; it’s at the heart of our number system. The number nine, when recorded in Base 10 as “9”, is the last numeral in the Base 10 number system. And the last numeral in any Base will always demonstrate the magical properties that 9 does. In case you’ve forgotten, we looked at two of those magical properties. First was the fact that whenever the sum of the digits of a number are added together and subtracted from the original number, the result must be a multiple of 9. The second special property was the fact that any multiple of 9 will eventually collapse to 9.

Both of the magical properties of the number 9 stem from its role as the last numeral in our number system. If some other number, rather than 9 were the last numeral in our number system (that is, if we used a different Base, such as Base 2 or Base 8), then that number would demonstrate the magical powers that currently reside with the number 9. The Power to Create Multiples of 9 The equations below show that whenever the sum of the two digits of a two-digit number is subtracted from the original number, the result must be a multiple of 9. We start with a two-digit number, XYwhich has the numeral X in the tens place and Y in the ones place. We first subtract Y from the original number, then later subtract X; this amounts to the same thing as subtracting the sum of X and Y). After subtracting Y from XY, we are left with X0, which has X in the tens place, and nothing in the ones place. Hence X0 is the same thing as 10*X. We find that when we subtract X from 10*X, we are left with 9X. Hence the final result must be a multiple of 9. 1. XY – Y = X0 2. X0 = 10*X 3. 10*X – X = (10-1)X = 9X With only slight modifications, we can use this process to show that the rule applies to all numbers, regardless of the number of digits they have. Therefore, regardless of the number of digits a number has, if one subtracts the sum of its digits from it, the result will be a multiple of 9. Let’s see how this works out for a three-digit number: 1. XYZ – Z = XY0 2. XY0 = X00 + Y0 = 100X + 10Y 3. (100X + 10 Y) - Y - X = 100X – X + 10Y –Y = 99X + 9Y = 9(11X + Y) Here, we start with the three-digit number XYZ (which has X in the hundreds place, Y in the tens place, and Z in the ones place). This time, we subtract first Z, then X and Y from the number- which is the same as subtracting the sum of X, Y and Z. At the end, we are left with 9(11X + Y). This proves that even for three-digit numbers, this process will always lead to a multiple of 9. Before we move on to examine the other magical power of the number 9, however, look very closely at the last two lines of the calculations we made to prove that subtracting the sum of the numerals of twodigits numbers results in multiples of nine. Also, remember what I said at the beginning of this section: the source of 9’s powers is the fact that it is the last numeral in our counting system. If 9 were not the last numeral in our counting system, then (10-1)X would not equal 9X. The result of the operation “10 – 1” depends entirely upon the value of “10” (the value of the numeral 1 is assumed to be held constant between different number systems). More specifically, it depends upon the place-value of the place that the numeral 1 occupies in 10. In Base 10, the place value of this place is ten, because the

largest numeral in this system only represents the number nine. If there were only four numerals, then the “1” in “10” would be in the fours place; again, because the largest numeral in the system only represents the number three. Hence, subtracting “1” from “10” always gives the largest numeral in the number system being used. Thus the largest numeral will always have magical properties. In Base 4, it is the number 3 that will demonstrate these properties; in Base 7 it is the number 6; in Base 12 it would be the number 11, and so on. The power to collapse to 9 The second magical property of the number 9 can also be explained using equations and an understanding of number systems. The equations below (which really just work in the opposite direction to those that were used in the previous section) show that any two-digit multiple of 9 must collapse to 9: 1. 9 Multiplied by anything = 9X = (10 – 1)X = 10X – X = X0 – X = (X-1)(10-X) 2. If we add the numerals: X-1 + 10 –X = 9

see explanation below

Probably the least intuitively clear step we take in the calculations above is in creating the equation X0 – X = (X-1)(10-X). Here, “(X-1)(10-X)” does not represent the multiplication of two terms, but rather the two numerals of a two-digit number. “X-1” is in the tens place, and “10-X” is in the ones place. This number is arrived at by the simple rules of subtraction. Adding these two “digits” together gives 9, which shows that every two-digit multiple of 9 must collapse to 9. Similar calculations can be used to show that multiples of 9- no matter how many digits they have- will always collapse to 9. For instance, the steps shown below illustrate that the rule applies even for threedigit multiples of 9. 1. 9 * XY = (10 – 1) * XY = XY0 – XY = (X – 1)(9+Y-X)(10-Y) 2. Adding the numerals: X -1 + 9 + Y – X + 10 – Y = 9 + 9 = 18 3. From 18: 1 + 8 = 9

see explanation below

In order to get a three-digit multiple of nine, we must start by multiplying 9 by a two-digit number; here we assume XY as that number. Once again, the last term in Step One does not represent the product of three terms, but just one number that has three numerals: “X-1” in the hundreds place, “9+Y-X” in the tens place, and “10-Y” in the ones place. This number is also arrived at by implementing the ordinary rules of subtraction. From Step Two above, we can tentatively conclude that the addition of the numerals of a multiple of 9 (regardless of how many numerals it has) will result in an addition of several

9’s…which is simply a multiplication of nine. In this case, the addition of 9’s created a two-digit multiple of 9; and, as we just proved earlier, this must collapse to 9. Now take a closer look at the equations we used to prove that any two-digit multiple of 9 must collapse to 9 (for the sake of simplicity we will ignore the equations needed to prove this for multiples of 9 that have more digits than 2). The last equation is: X – 1 +10 – X = 9. However, remember that this is only equal to 9 because in Base 10, 9 is the largest available numeral. If we were not using Base 10, the operation “10-1” would result in a different number. For instance, in Base 4, the value of the equation would be 3, and all multiples of the number 3 would eventually collapse to 3. Therefore, once again, the last numeral in any number system will always demonstrate two special properties. Firstly, subtracting the numerals of any number from the original number will always result in a multiple of the last numeral of the system; and secondly, all multiples of that numeral will eventually collapse to that same numeral. Since we use a Base 10 number system, 9 is the last numeral in our system. And that’s the source of 9’s magical powers. In reaching that understanding, we’ve come a long way from The Amazing Mind-Reader, haven’t we? Just goes to show that real treasures can be hidden beneath the veil of a rather cheap magic trick.


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