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All Numbers are Interesting

There are clearly many interesting whole numbers. For instance, 2 is the only even
prime number, 3 is the first odd prime, 6 is a perfect number (the sum of the proper
divisors is the number itself), etc.

But did you know that all whole numbers are interesting? We shall prove it here.

Suppose, for the sake of contradiction, that not all whole numbers are interesting.
Using the well-ordering property of the whole numbers, among the non-interesting
numbers there is a smallest non-interesting number N. But that would make N
interesting, after all, a contradiction.

Therefore all numbers are interesting.

Computability of Real Numbers

We can write a computer program that will successively print out the digits of the
decimal expansion of Pi. We can also write one that will list the digits of the decimal
expansion of the square root of 2. Similarly, there are computer programs that will
compute the square roots of integers, ones that will compute cube roots, etc. In fact,
for the irrational numbers that you encounter in your day-to-day life, there are
computer programs that will compute them as long as their defining characteristics
can be "described" in some reasonable way.

So, for every given irrational number, does there always exist a computer program
that will list the digits of that number?

Surprisingly, no! There are some irrational numbers whose decimal expansion cannot
be computed!
Zero to the Zero Power
It is commonly taught that any number to the zero power is 1, and zero to any power
is 0. But if that is the case, what is zero to the zero power?

Well, it is undefined (since xy as a function of 2 variables is not continuous at the


But if it could be defined, what "should" it be? 0 or 1?

Presentation Suggestions:
Take a poll to see what people think before you show them any of the reasons below.

The Math Behind the Fact:

We'll give several arguments to show that the answer "should" be 1.

• The alternating sum of binomial coefficients from the n-th row of Pascal's
triangle is what you obtain by expanding (1-1)n using the binomial theorem,
i.e., 0n. But the alternating sum of the entries of every row except the top row
is 0, since 0k=0 for all k greater than 1. But the top row of Pascal's triangle
contains a single 1, so its alternating sum is 1, which supports the notion that
(1-1)0=00 if it were defined, should be 1.
• The limit of xx as x tends to zero (from the right) is 1. In other words, if we
want the xx function to be right continuous at 0, we should define it to be 1.
• The expression mn is the product of m with itself n times. Thus m0, the "empty
product", should be 1 (no matter what m is).
• Another way to view the expression mn is as the number of ways to map an n-
element set to an m-element set. For instance, there are 9 ways to map a 2-
element set to a 3-element set. There are NO ways to map a 2-element set to
the empty set (hence 02=0). However, there is exactly one way to map the
empty set to itself: use the identity map! Hence 00=1.
• Here's an aesthetic reason. A power series is often compactly expressed as

SUMn=0 to INFINITY an (x-c)n.

We desire this expression to evaluate to a0 when x=c, but the n=0 term in the
above expression is problematic at x=c. This can be fixed by separating the a0
term (not as nice) or by defining 00=1.
Mind-Reading Number Trick
Think of a number, any positive integer (but keep it small so you can do computations
in your head).

1. Square it.
2. Add the result to your original number.
3. Divide by your original number.
4. Add, oh I don't know, say 17.
5. Subtract your original number.
6. Divide by 6.

The number you are thinking of now is 3!

How did I do this?

Presentation Suggestions:
Ham it up with magician's patter. Step 4 could be anything you want---someone's age,
or their favorite number--- just ask the crowd for suggestions. (This will change the
final outcome of Step 6, but see below for how.)

The Math Behind the Fact:

Clearly no matter what you start with, the answer should come out the same (zero
wasn't allowed because of Step 3). We can see why this trick works by using a little
bit of high school algebra! If you follow the instructions starting with the variable X
instead of an actual number, you will see that X is eliminated by Step 5.

Using this idea, you can make up your own mental math trick right on the spot! (Just
don't do anything too obvious, like tell people to add 5, subtract their original number,
and say "the number you are thinking of is 5".)
One Equals Zero!
The following is a "proof" that one equals zero.

Consider two non-zero numbers x and y such that

x = y.
Then x2 = xy.
Subtract the same thing from both sides:
x2 - y2 = xy - y2.
Dividing by (x-y), obtain
x + y = y.
Since x = y, we see that
2 y = y.
Thus 2 = 1, since we started with y nonzero.
Subtracting 1 from both sides,
1 = 0.

What's wrong with this "proof"?

Presentation Suggestions:
This Fun Fact is a reminder for students to always check when they are dividing by
unknown variables for cases where the denominator might be zero.

The Math Behind the Fact:

The problem with this "proof" is that if x=y, then x-y=0. Notice that halfway through
our "proof" we divided by (x-y).

Powers of Ten in Base Two and Five

Make two lists; one consists of all powers of 10 in base 2, and the other all powers of
10 in base 5. (Powers of 10 are 10, 100, 1000, etc.)

Fun Fact: for any integer N > 1, there is exactly one number in exactly one of the lists
that is exactly N digits long!

Presentation Suggestions:
Show students the first terms in each list: they are
(base 2) 1010, 1100100, 1111101000, ...
(base 5) 20, 400, 13000, 310000, ...

The Math Behind the Fact:

This fact is quite startling when you first see it. Proving it makes a great exercise for a
Putnam problem-solving seminar...

Squares Ending in 5
Give me any 2 digit number that ends in 5, and I'll square it in my head!
452 = 2025
852 = 7225, etc.

There's a quick way to do this: if the first digit is N and the second digit is 5, then the
last 2 digits of the answer will be 25, and the preceding digits will be N*(N+1).

Presentation Suggestions:
After telling the trick, have students see how fast they can square such numbers in
their head, but doing several examples.

The Math Behind the Fact:

You may wish to assign the proof as a fun homework exercise: multiply (10N+5)
(10N+5) and interpret! The trick works for larger numbers, too, although it may be
harder to do this in your head. For instance 2052 = 42025, since 20*21=420. Also, you
can combine this trick with other lightning arithmetic tricks. So 1152 = 13225, because
11*12 = 132, using the Multiplication by 11 trick.

The reference also contains more secrets of fast mental calculations.

Squaring Quickly
You may have seen the Fun Fact on squares ending in 5; Here's a trick that can help
you square ANY number quickly.

It's based on the algebra identity for the difference of squares, but with a twist! Can
you figure it out?

542 = 50 * 58 + 42 = 2916.
422 = 40 * 44 + 22 = 1764.
372 = 34 * 40 + 32 = 1369.
You have to pretty proficient at multiplying one digit numbers by two digit numbers
in your head to do this trick well. But if you master this, then you can build upon it in
some amazing ways:
1162 = 100 * 132 + 162 = 13,200 + 256 = 13,456.

Thinking CREATIVELY about everything you learn, no matter how trivial it may
seem, will allow you to find some really clever applications!

Presentation Suggestions:
If you practice this a LOT beforehand, you can start off by asking students to name
any 2-digit number and you will do it in your head quickly. Then tell them the trick.
But only do this with a LOT OF PRACTICE!

The Math Behind the Fact:

If you look closely, we are using the identity:

a2 = (a-b)(a+b) + b2.

The reference contains more ideas for doing fast mental calculations. See also Fun
Facts on lightning arithmetic.

Van der Waerden Theorem

Can you color the integers red and blue such that there are no monochromatic
arithmetic progressions (AP's) extending infintely in both directions? Sure -- just color
zero and all the positive integers red, and all the negative integers blue.

Now try coloring just the positive integers with red and blue such that there are no
one-sided infinite monochromatic AP's. This is almost as easy -- color the first one
red, the next two blue, the next three red, the next four blue, and so on. If an AP has
step size d, then eventually it will hit a blue integer and eventually hit a red integer, as
soon as the monochromatic blocks reach size d.

What about finite AP's? Given any coloring of the positive integers, can you find a
monochromatic finite AP of arbitrarily long length?

Surprisingly, yes!

The Van der Waerden theorem says that given any number of colors and
specifications for lengths, there's an M large enough so that no matter how you color
the first M integers with those colors, you can always find a monochromatic AP of at
least one of the given lengths and colors!

Presentation Suggestions:
You may ask students to think about the first two questions (perhaps a bonus problem
on a HW) before doing this Fun Fact.

The Math Behind the Fact:

The Van der Waerden theorem follows from the diagonal Van der Waerden theorem
in which all the specified lengths are equal. This in turn can be proven with a very
clever application of the pigeonhole principle and double induction. The key
observation is that one may treat a block of m integers colored with k colors as a
single integer colored with km colors. The Van der Waerden theorem also follows as a
consequence of the much more difficult Hales-Jewett Theorem, which involves
monochromatic combinatorial lines in colored high-dimensional lattices. All of these
results are part of a branch of mathematics called Ramsey Theory.

Why Does 0.999... = 1?

Consider the real number that is represented by a zero and a decimal point, followed
by a never-ending string of nines:


It may come as a surprise when you first learn the fact that this real number is actually
EQUAL to the integer 1. A common argument that is often given to show this is as
follows. If S = 0.999..., then 10*S = 9.999... so by subtracting the first equation from
the second, we get

9*S = 9.000...

and therefore S=1. Here's another argument. The number 0.1111... = 1/9, so if we
multiply both sides by 9, we obtain 0.9999...=1.

Presentation Suggestions:
You might also mention that by similar arguments, every rational number has two
decimal expansions: one which terminates (in a never-ending string of 0's) and
another which ends in a never-ending string of 9's. So, for instance, the rational 7/20
can be represented as 0.35 (the same as 0.35000...) or 0.34999...

The Math Behind the Fact:

When seeing these arguments, many people feel that there is something shady going
on here. Since they do not have a clear idea what a decimal expansion represents, they
cannot believe that a number can have two different representations.

We can try to clear that up by explaining what a decimal representation means. Recall
that the digit in each place of a decimal expansion is associated with a (positive or
negative) power of 10. The k-th place to the left of the decimal corresponds to the
power 10^k. The k-th place to the right of the decimal corresponds to the power 10^(-
k) or 1/10^k.

If the digits in each place are multiplied by their corresponding power of 10 and then
added together, one obtains the real number that is represented by this decimal

So the decimal expansion 0.9999... actually represents the infinite sum

9/10 + 9/100 + 9/1000 + 10/10000 + ...

which can be summed as a geometric series to get 1. Note that 1 has decimal
representation 1.000... which is just 1 + 0/10 + 0/100 + 0/1000 + ... so if one realizes
that decimal expansions are just a code for an infinite sum, it may be less surprising
that two infinite sums can have the same sum.

Hence 0.999... equals 1.

Sums of Two Squares

Here's a nice theorem due to Fibonacci, in 1202.

Theorem. If integers N and M can each be written as the sum of two squares, so can
their product!

Example: since 2=12+12 and 34=32+52, their product 68 should be expressible as the
sum of two squares.

In fact, 68=82+22. Is there an easy way to figure out what squares the product will be
made of?

Yes! This all follows from the very cool formula:

(a2+b2) (c2+d2) = (ac+bd)2 + (ad-bc)2.

Presentation Suggestions:
Do a few more numerical examples before showing the cool formula.

The Math Behind the Fact:

The formula above can be checked trivially. But there are other ways to see why it is
true. If you know some linear algebra, take a look at the Fun Fact Really Complex
Matrices, and take the determinant of both sides of the matrix equation there. You will
get the formula above!

Or, if you know about complex numbers, the left hand side is the squared modulus of
two complex numbers and the right side is the squared modulus of their product!

Sums of Three and Four Squares

How many squares does it take to express every whole number as the sum of squares?
We saw that two was not enough in Sums of Two Squares. Perhaps three? Or four?

Well, three is not enough, but almost. The only whole numbers which cannot be
written as the sum of 3 squares are numbers of the form 4m(8k+7). So you will have
problems writing 7, 15, or 28 as the sum of three squares.

But every whole number can be written as the sum of four squares!

Accordingly, 7=22+12+12+12, and 15=32+22+12+12.

Presentation Suggestions:
Have the class pick their favorite number and write it as the sum of four squares.

Sums of Reciprocal Powers

You have seen that the harmonic series diverges. What about the sum of reciprocal
squares? In fact, they converge, and to something very interesting:

SUMk=1 to infinity ( 1/k2 ) = ( Pi2/6 )

Where did that Pi come from, anyway?

If you liked that one, here are more:

SUMk=1 to infinity ( 1/k4 ) = ( Pi4/90 )

SUMk=1 to infinity ( 1/k6 ) = ( Pi6/945 )
SUMk=1 to infinity ( 1/k8 ) = ( Pi8/9450 )
SUMk=1 to infinity ( 1/k10 ) = ( Pi10/93,555 )

Presentation Suggestions:
This Fun Fact is short and fun for the class to ponder.

The Math Behind the Fact:

Little is known about sums of odd powers. It was recently shown (Apery) that the sum
of the cubed reciprocals is irrational. The sums of reciprocal powers as you vary the
power is a function known as the Riemann zeta function.