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This 'Simple' Puzzle Once Stumped 96% of America's Top Math Students

Twenty years ago, this puzzle appeared on a test administered to top-tier math s
tudents from 16 countries around the world. Only 10% of test takers got it right
. In the U.S., only 4% managed to provide a correct response. Can you find the si
mple solution that so many intelligent students missed?
Earlier this week, a logic puzzle went viral. The riddle, which you can read her
e, challenged problem-solvers to determine someone s birthday, based on what seeme
d, at first glance, to be insufficient information. I opted not to feature the b
rain teaser on io9, because potential spoiler alert
I thought it too similar to
another puzzle I posted here a few months ago. So why do I mention it at all? Tw
o reasons.
Reason number one: It turns out the birthday riddle recently appeared on a math o
lympiad test for number-savvy high schoolers in Singapore. When I learned of the
problem s origins, I was immediately reminded of another puzzle, which, twenty yea
rs ago, bedeviled many of the world s sharpest high-school-aged math students.
The puzzle in question appears below, exactly as it did on a test administered i
n 1995 to students in their final year of secondary school in 16 countries aroun
d the world. The test was one of three developed by the International Associatio
n for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to assess math and science
literacy around the globe. Unlike the other two tests in the series, this one w
as designed specifically for final-year students who had taken advanced mathemat
ics courses. The IEA later reported that this question stumped more students tha
n almost any other on the exam. Students in all participating countries found thi
s problem very difficult, reads the IEA s Third International Mathematics and Scien
ce Report. Only 10%, on average, provided a fully correct response, with another
2%, on average, receiving partial credit. Swedish students fared best, with 24% p
roviding full, correct answers. In the United States, just 4% of students were a
ble to provide a complete solution.
Reason number two: I hesitate to provide the second reason. I worry it would pro
vide too big a hint. I allude to it pretty directly above, in the headline and l
ede, but if you want a more explicit explanation, click here.
Art by Tara Jacoby
Sunday Puzzle #28: String Around the Rod
This 'Simple' Puzzle Once Stumped 96% of America's Top Math Students
We ll be back next week with the solution
and a new puzzle! Got a great braintease
r, original or otherwise, that you d like to see featured? E-mail me with your rec
ommendations. (Be sure to include Sunday Puzzle in the subject line.)
SOLUTION To Sunday Puzzle #27: Finger Counting
Last week, I asked you to determine the highest number that could be reached by
counting with the fingers on both hands (assuming, for the purposes of our puzzl
e, that thumbs are fingers, and that you are finger-counting with a total of ten
digits).
The solution to this puzzle (or, at least, the solution I was looking for) is 1,
023. The trick is to count not in base ten (which is how most of us learn to cou
nt on our fingers), but in base two. In this way, one can count as high as 31 us
ing the digits on one hand, and as high as 1,023 using the digits on both hands.
(Assuming they were nimble enough, you could use all your toes to count as high
as 11111111111111111111 in binary, which translates to 1,048,575.)

Many of you arrived at the binary solution, above, but I was even more impressed
with how many readers came up with ways to count even higher. Last week s comment
s are full of solutions that involve using different hand positions to increase
the maximum-countable-number multiple times over. Other commenters (who clearly
possess more dexterity than I do), suggested using partial-finger (i.e. bent-fin
ger) positioning to count in base three. Click here, then scroll down to the com
ments, to explore these alternate solutions.
Previous Weeks Puzzles
This Week s Puzzle Has A Very Simple Solution. Can You Find it?
Can You Solve This Extremely Difficult Star Trek Puzzle?
You Either Solve This Riddle, Or You Die
Can You Solve The Hardest Logic Puzzle In the World ?
You ll Need All 3 Clues To Solve This Puzzle
Think You Know The Solution To This Classic Riddle? Think Again.
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Can You Guess The Next Number In This Sequence?
34

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Guywhothinksstuff
Guywhothinksstuff
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GuywhothinksstuffRobbie Gonzalez
4/19/15 12:30pm
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20cm? That d be the square root of 16squared+12squared.
123Reply
Harley-Beckett
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4/19/15 12:36pm
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I m with you. The route travelled by the string is along the hypotenuse of four tr
iangles of base 4cm, height 3cm. 4 x 5cm = 20cm.
Does that make sense? I ve always sucked at showing my working...
67Reply

Guywhothinksstuff
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4/19/15 1:18pm
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I worked it out slightly differently, by mapping the surface of the cylinder fou
r times next to each other (so 16cm total) and making the string a straight line
from the bottom of the first corner to the top of the last (so the hypotenuse o
f a 12x16 triangle). If I were smarter I would have seen that it circles four sm
aller cylinders 4 times ;)
23Reply
martinlalev
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4/19/15 1:31pm
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i just came to this solution because of the toilet paper sitting next to me
79Reply
peculiarist
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4/19/15 1:38pm
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That s what I did. I m pretty sure it s right.
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gigglesticks
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4/19/15 1:12pm
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I can understand how the solution, for the purpose of the problem, would be exac

tly 20 cm. But in our world, it would actually be a bit more, because of the wid
th of the twine.
If you wrap a piece of string around a cylinder, with the strands lying side by
side, still, it s traveling a little; that is, by the width of the string each tim
e. The wider the twine, the more it travels. Even if you managed to wrap each st
rand on top of the last one, like a coil, still, it s traveling a little with each
turn.
23Reply
peculiarist
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4/19/15 1:40pm
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I think in maths we assume a 1-dimensional string...
56Reply
gfoulk
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4/19/15 1:49pm
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Yup. Reminds me of a joke about physics problems:
.
123Reply
davex495
Dave
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Given two spherical elephants..

Davegigglesticks
4/19/15 1:57pm
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It s still easy. Just make the radius = half the thickness of the twine + radius o
f rod. Then calculate for circumference.
7Reply
gigglesticks
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4/19/15 2:07pm
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And this is why I only got so far in algebra, and took up knitting.
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peculiarist
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4/19/15 1:38pm
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I m going to go for 20 cm.
My working is: Convert the cylinder to a rectangle of length 12 and width 4.
If the string goes four times around the cylinder, it passes around the circumfe
rence four times, and can be drawn on the rectangle as four diagonal lines formi
ng two triangles and three parallelograms.
This divides the length of the rectangle into four pieces of 3 each. So the leng
th of the diagonal can be found via Pythagoras: a-squared + b-squared = c-square
d. In this case a=4 and b=3 to c=5. Since the string is represented by four diag
onal lines it is 4x5 = 20 cm long.
36Reply
peculiarist
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4/19/15 1:42pm
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I think this puzzle is easy for people who have learned you can convert geometri
c shapes to other - simpler - geometric shapes, and difficult for people who hav
en t realised this.
47Reply
tenaj
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4/19/15 1:59pm
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Nice explanation.
And the fact that the numbers are so neat is a bit of a clue, too. It s a 3-4-5 ri
ght triangle, no need even to break out a calculator.
4Reply
taylorsmurphy
Taylor M
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4/19/15 2:09pm
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Yeah, all you have to do is imagine rolling the tube and the string coming off o
n a table, and you ll have a triangle, one side would be the length of the tube, t
he other would be the distance it has rolled, and the hypotenuse would be the st
ring between them.
26Reply
peculiarist
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4/19/15 2:34pm
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The benefit to your method is that the string doesn t have to be imagined wrapped
around the cylinder evenly.
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thebrainofchris
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4/19/15 12:26pm
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Why isn t it 16cm? (Four times the circumference)
8Reply
e_is_real_i_isnt
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4/19/15 12:28pm
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Hint: Triangle.
34Reply
will-holz
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4/19/15 12:46pm
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Hint: Triangle.
Hint Addendum: Triangle formerly known as triangles.
8Reply
contact_Feanor
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4/19/15 1:54pm
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because you re not moving parallel to the base of the cylinder. If you think of it
as a square, you re moving along the diagonal, your solution is like suggesting t
hat the diagonal has the same length as the side of the square...
2Reply
stealheadtrout
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stealheadtroutWill Holz
4/19/15 3:52pm
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Will you need to use this math symbol?
59Reply
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hawkinggo
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4/19/15 6:22pm
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Four times the circumference, once the length.
4*4 + 12 = 28cm ... did I miss something?
17Reply
hawkinggo
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4/19/15 6:30pm
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People below/above keep wanting to transform the cylinder into a rectangle ... s
o I ll bite.
Let s say the cylinder is length 12 cm and width 4 cm. The string goes in a straig
ht line up the length (12 cm). But along the width it goes a space that is 4 tim
es the width. So it creates a triangle that is length (12 cm) and width (4*4 cm
= 16 cm).
The hypotenuse is then sqrt(12^2 + 16^2) = sqrt(144+256) = sqrt(400) = 20 cm. So
I did miss something, what did I miss?
4Reply
garabyte
Luis Adrin Pea
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4/19/15 6:47pm
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Yes. High school, apparently.
16Reply
hawkinggo
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4/19/15 6:49pm
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Breaking it into smaller pieces, let s go around once. That s a width of 4 cm and a
length of (12/4 = 3 cm). Along a straight line it would be the hypotenuse of a t
riangle with 3, 4, 5 cm sides). That makes sense since doing so four times equal
s 20 cm. My original conjecture was that is should equal 4 cm + 3 cm = 7 cm, whi
ch would make sense if the total length was 28 cm and is the same if I traveled
the length and then the width instead of the diagonal along the hypotenuse.
What I missed was that it didn t travel the full length of the cylinder and four t
imes around the cylinder (28 cm). In reality each time it went around the cylind
er it took a path through the diagonal of the rectangle (see below).

35Reply
hawkinggo
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4/19/15 6:59pm
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You re adorable. And a strong reminder that I most certainly do not miss high scho
ol.
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ilm0stro
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4/19/15 3:11pm
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My 2 cents...
The string wraps exactly 4 times around the rod. Let s imagine the rod vertically
for visual convenience.
Since the wrapping is symmetrical, each time the string makes a complete wrap ar
ound the rod (front and back), the difference in heigh between the point where t
he string begins wrapping (h1) and the point where it ends the wrap (h2) is 12cm
4 = 3cm. We will call this difference h.
Consequentially, the string makes half a wrap with a difference in height betwee
n starting and ending point that is h/2 = 3cm 2 = 1,5cm
Let s calculate the diameter (d) of the rod by dividing the circumference of the r
od (4cm) by Pi So d= 4cm 3,14 = 1,2738853503184713376cm
Now, consider the ellipses that has as a minor axis (a1) the diameter of the rod
(d) and as a major axis (a2) the straight line that goes from the starting to t

he ending point of the string as it makes half a wrap along the rod.
We can calculate the
he hypotenuse (i) of
rod (a = d) and the
the string in half a

major axis (a2) of the ellipses because it corresponds to t


the right triangle that has for catheti the diameter of the
height difference between the starting and ending point of
wrap (b= h/2). Check the image for reference.

thanks to Pitagora (powered by google calculator :D) we know that the hypothenus
e is equal to the square roots of the sum of the catheti. In this case... i = 1.
97
But why do we need this ellipse axis? As it makes a wrap around the rod, the str
ing runs along this ellipse circumference (to and fro the major axis extremities
), so the length of the string for half a wrap corresponds to half the circumfer
ence of said ellipse, and the length of the string as it makes one complete wrap
equals two times this length, which is the entire circumference of the ellipses
.
L (one wrap) = C
We need only half of the two axis to calculate the ellipse circumference.
a1/2 = d/2 = 1.2738853503184713376cm/2 = 0.6369426751592356688cm
a2/2 = i/2 = 1.97/2 = 0.985cm
And like hell I am going write integrals using my iPad, so we will trust the mig
hty google calculator again, which uses a Ramanujan approximation to calculate t
he circumference and who am I to disagree
C = 5.15cm
We said that C equals the length of one wrap of string (two times half a wrap)
So multiply the thing by four wraps and you have the total length of the string.
L = L (one wrap ) * 4 = 5.15cm * 4 = 20.6cm
7Reply
kenudiggit
Ken U Diggit
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4/19/15 5:14pm
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Interesting approach, but the wraps do not make ellipses.
shows the string making a zig-zag pattern (and if you cut
se lines, you would indeed get ellipses) but in actuality
sinusoidal in that view. The correct answer, as many have
(assuming a 1D string).
2Reply
ilm0stro
IlMostro

Your left hand sketch


the cylinder along tho
the string would look
noted, is exactly 20cm

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4/19/15 5:39pm
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Ah shoot, cosine wave. Well there is probably an elegant function to solve this
the hard way, but sure as hell I won t be the one to dwell on it. Pitagora it is :
D
1Reply
jay1234l
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4/19/15 6:17pm
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This method is very complicated, but it seems like it should give the same resul
t, but for some reason, it seems like it does not, exactly. I tried using a TI-8
9 without any explicit approximations and I got a sum that converges to 5.14915
Reply
ilm0stro
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4/20/15 6:00am
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As Ken U Diggit correctly pointed out to me, unfortunately it doesn t work because
the string does not follow the circumference of an exact cross section of the c
ylinder, an ellipse, but rather it has a sinusoidal trend. If we wanted to go th
e complicate way, we would have to determine the arc length of the curve using i
ntegration.
like so
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ejs2000
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4/20/15 9:01am
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Okay, I m posting this without looking at anyone else s comments first.
To find the length of the string, unwind it from around the cylinder. To unwind
one loop requires the cylinder to rotate once around entirely, meaning it travel
s a distance of 4 cm. There are four loops, so it must roll 16 cm to unwind full
y.
This diagram I made shows that the string (in red) winds up being the hypotenuse
of a right triangle, which has 16 cm of distance on one side and the 12 cm leng
th of the cylinder on the other side. Since the Pythagorean theorem dictates in
this case that a^2+b^2=c^2, thus 16^2+12^2=L^2, thus 256+144=L^2, thus 400=L^2,
thus L=20. (And since I made the diagram to scale, I was able to confirm this an
swer by measuring it.)
Okay, now off to read everyone else s comments and see if anyone solved this more
simply!
7Reply
ejs2000
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4/20/15 9:11am
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Okay, looks like the people who did solve it correctly generally use the same te
chnique, or solve for the length of just one loop and multiply by four. So yay,
I got it right.
Reply
josephpettit
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4/20/15 9:16am
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Your figure makes the math confusing.

This simplifies it IMO such that say you cut the cylinder vertically thus having
your 4cm top and bottom the mark out your 12cm length and so on......
3Reply
sharpenhauer999
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4/20/15 1:18pm
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Ah, okay. Now *this* makes sense. Thank you.
1Reply
slynilo03
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4/21/15 6:04am
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Wouldn t the string need to hit the top side of the cylinder 4 times? In my head y
our drawing only covers 2 circles and forgets about the back of the cylinder. I
got ~34.17cm using a zig-zag type drawing (shown a lot in the comments) but ende
d up with 8 4x1.5cm triangles (or 4 8x3 triangles would also work)
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saulholguindelacruz01
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4/19/15 1:31pm
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about 52 cm, math to follow in an edit
the trick it to cut a representation of the surface into a rectangle. That gives
a rectangle with side lengths of 4pi cm and 12 cm.
You then cut that shape into 4 smaller rectangles with sides of 4pi cm and 3 cm
in length.
The string will represent a line cutting the rectangles into two right triangles
.
You then solve for the hypotenuse of a triangle: sqrt(4pi^2+3^2) to get about 13
, multiply by four (because there are four of these triangles), then you get abo
ut 52.
7Reply
semicynical
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4/19/15 1:55pm
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If the circumference of the rod is 4 cm, why are the side lengths of the rectang
le not 4 cm?
4Reply
contact_Feanor
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4/19/15 1:56pm
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the circumference is 4, not the radius.. same logic gives 20, like others sugges
ted
13Reply
saulholguindelacruz01
Tauromachy
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4/19/15 2:05pm
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Well that s why reading comprehension is so important...I did think the math had a
few more decimal places than normal this week. Thanks for the heads up.
6Reply
saulholguindelacruz01
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4/19/15 2:07pm
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Because I misread the problem.
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nativeplant
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4/19/15 3:40pm
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It goes around 4 times. 4 x 4 cm = 16 cm
It also has to go the length of the cylinder 12 cm.
28 cm
14Reply
turkeyhundt
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4/19/15 4:03pm
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It doesn t work that way. If a city is 12 miles north of you and 16 miles east. It
isn t 28 miles away. It is 20 miles away. You have to create a diagonal. While tr
aveling those 20 miles you cover the 12 miles north and the 16 miles east.
10Reply
nativeplant
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4/19/15 6:43pm
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I was going with the simple thing, so I tried to take anything complicated at all
out if it to prevent overthinking. Then I read the very simple explanation someo
ne else gave of rolling it out, it would create a hypotenuse of length X and bas
e 12 and height 16. I saw that picture in my head was also a very simple answer
3-4-5 x 4
4Reply
encyclia
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4/20/15 6:54am
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There s no diagonal or shortcut without going through the cylinder body. You still h
ave to go around 4 times and transverse the length. Doesn t matter how you wrap it
either.
3Reply
turkeyhundt
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4/20/15 8:52am
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There is a diagonal. Unroll the cylinder.
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RobinBobcat
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4/20/15 4:26am
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Aha! Had this one back in high school! The teacher liked my solution the best, b
ecause I even drew diagrams.
Pretend that the cylinder is instead a paper tube, and the string is a spirallin
g cut. If you unroll this, you wind up with a parallelogram, which are really ea
sy to find lengths of sides.
*cracks knuckles* Ok, we are trying to find the length of the two long sides of th
e parallelogram, which really means that you want the hypotenuse of the triangle
that is its height and length. Length is given as 12 cm, and... Oh come on, the
y even give the circumference? I had to figure out from a diameter! Ok, since th
e string/cut goes around four times, height is going to be four times the circum
ference of 4 cm, or 16 cm.
Per Mssr. Pythagoras:
a^2 + b^2 = c^2
12^2 + 16^2 = c^2
144 + 256 = 400
v400 = 20
The length of the string is 20 cm. Quo Est Demonstatum
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imagiro
Mario
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