This semester I am teaching topology, one of my favorite classes to teach. The students are second-semester seniors or junior. So for many of them, this is their last mathematics class. Near the end of the semester, I often take a break from the theory and proofs and have a class where the students play with Möbius bands and related objects—making them out of paper, cutting them apart, forming conjectures, and so on. It is usually a welcome April stress-reliever. This year, they will have to do it at home on their own. I made the following video for them to follow along.

I made the video for my advanced mathematics students, but I hope that the video could also be enjoyed by people of all ages and mathematical backgrounds. I have done this activity with kids as young as kindergarten. Everyone seems to enjoy it. I can’t stress this enough that it is best when you do the activity. It makes much more of an impact than watching it. By the way, when I do the activity for younger kids I tell them a story (about a circus coming to town) to go along with the activity. (I wrote about it here.)

Have fun, and if you do this with your kids or students, leave a comment (or a photo!) below.

If you would like another take on this idea, you can read my post about making zip-apart Möbius bands.

Or you can read about making Möbius band ambigrams.

]]>First things first: Everyone gets nervous giving a public presentation. Throw in a tricky math problem or a proof on a topic they have just learned, and it can be a source of great anxiety. It is natural and okay to be nervous. Your professors get nervous too! The best way to calm your nerves is to be well prepared before you step in front of your classmates. Here are some specific things you should do before you set foot in class.

**All ducks in a row.**Control what you can control, and leave as little to chance as possible. Walk into class as prepared as you can be.**Do the math.**Of course, your first task is to solve the problem or prove the theorem. If you are confident with your work, you will feel less anxiety when you present it. If you are unsure of your solution, go through the mathematics with your professor or a classmate beforehand.**Dress rehearsal.**Give a sample presentation. You can do this by yourself, or you can present it to a friend, your professor, or your cat or dog. Reading over your proof ahead of time is not the same as giving a presentation. You will often find flaws, gaps, or tricky spots that need elaboration when you present your work. It is better that this happens during a trial run than during the actual presentation.**Oops!**Don’t worry about making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. After your presentation, the professor and the students will give you feedback on your work. Take these comments as suggestions for improvement rather than attacks on your work.**Know it, don’t memorize it.**Do not try to memorize your proof or solution. You should be well-practiced and familiar enough with the mathematics that you can present it naturally.**Don’t “wing it.”**Walking into the class you may think you can prove the theorem or solve the problem without using notes or without being fully prepared. However, mental computations and logical thinking may be trickier to carry out when you are nervous. You may have a mental lapse and forget key details when you are standing in front of the class. It happens to us all! In such a situation, it is nice to have a safety net—make sure your notes are clear enough that they can help you string the argument together. Lastly, don’t be spontaneous; you may regret trying a new approach to the problem while you are standing at the board.

Now that you are prepared, you are ready to present the mathematics to the class. Here are some comments and suggestions for how best to deliver the material.

**What’s the point?**The main purpose of your presentation is to communicate mathematical ideas to your audience. You are not simply “putting your proof on the board” or demonstrating to your professor that you completed the assignment. You are not trying to convince your classmates that you are smart or clever. You are there to teach them some mathematics.**Writing is important.**Keep in mind all of the mathematical proof-writing advice you have learned, and write a high-quality proof on the board. If you are solving a problem instead of writing a proof, you may be able to be a little more sketchy and informal. However, keep in mind that your classmates are taking notes, and what you write on the board is likely going to be exactly what ends up in their notes. The more clear you are, the better their notes will be.**Give the big picture.**We all know from learning new mathematics that it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Your job in presenting your work to the class is to help them understand the big picture. For instance, rather than simply working through a set theory proof one line at a time, you can start by saying something like, “The key to this proof is showing that the set*A*has one and only one element.”**Remember your audience.**Pitch the proof and the discussion to your audience. Do not over-explain elementary ideas that your audience can grasp easily. Also, do not breeze over complicated or technical ideas. You can often read your audience by observing their body language. But if you are unsure whether they are following a particular argument, ask them.**Let me give you a minute.**Keep in mind that your audience will be taking notes, and they will be trying to follow the logical progression of the argument. It is difficult for them to listen and write at the same time. Don’t rush through a proof so fast that they cannot keep up. Pause after each sentence and visually check in with the class. If it looks like they are confused or if they are trying to get your attention to alert you to an error, address the issue.**Notes or no notes?**An ideal situation is to present the proof without a glance at your notes. However, this is often unrealistic and unnecessary. It is acceptable and appropriate to have a page or two of notes at hand so you can check them from time to time (do not bring your entire binder with you). Notes can help you remember what the next step is, they may contain some key wording that you need to ensure is precise, and they can give you a way to check that you haven’t omitted a key detail. However, you should never simply copy work from your notes.**All the world’s a stage.**Although you are not performing as an actor, you are performing. Be conscious of the way you deliver the content. Speak clearly, loudly, and slowly. Be enthusiastic, smile, find the right pacing, and connect with the audience. Make eye contact. Move from person to person. (It would be awkward to make eye contact with the same person the entire time—including your professor!) Do not stare up at the ceiling, down at the floor, at your notes, or at the board. Be aware of your nervous actions—”ummm”s, “ahhh”s, “y’know”s, “like”s, fidgeting hand gestures, and so on.**Writing and speaking.**Find a good balance between writing, speaking, facing the room, and facing the board. If you can write and speak at the same time, great. But any time you are not writing, you should face the class. Don’t write multiple sentences in silence. Do not speak into the board unless you are speaking and writing at the same time.**Font size.**Your writing should be large enough and neat enough that it is legible at the back of the room. Print; do not write in cursive. Use a marker color dark enough that it is easy to see. Write in horizontal lines—your sentences should not slant up or down.**Move it.**Walk around if you can. Most importantly, do not stand in front of your work when you are not writing. Give the entire class a full view of your work.**Wipe out.**Erase enough of the board to have a nice, clear area to write on. Do not squeeze your work in and around other writing that is already on the board. However, do not erase the existing work until everyone has copied it. When you do erase, use an eraser, not your hands. If you do use your hands, don’t then touch your face or your clothes as it may leave a colored smudge behind. Pro tip: erase the board up-and-down, not side-to-side. If your erasing arm moves side-to-side, then, by conservation of momentum, your torso will dance back-and-forth to compensate.**Use your arm.**Writing on a chalkboard or a whiteboard is different than writing on paper. Do not rest your palm on the board, and write using your hand muscles like you would with a pencil. The only thing touching the board should be the tip of the chalk or marker; use your arm to write.**A thousand words.**Many proofs or problems have a picture that must accompany the mathematics. Obviously, in those cases, you should draw and reference the figure. Be sure it is large enough and all the key features are clearly labeled. You can use colored markers to highlight certain aspects, but keep in mind that your note-taking classmates may not have multiple colors at their disposal. There are many cases in which the theorem or problem is abstract and there is no exact figure that accompanies it. But it still may be helpful to draw a representative figure that illustrates the ideas you are presenting.**Know when to say when.**If your chalk squeaks, break it in half. If your whiteboard marker is out of ink, throw it away.**A topologist, an algebraist, and an analyst walk into a bar.**Be careful about telling jokes. A class is typically not the appropriate venue for jokes, jokes often fall flat, and an inappropriate joke or one taken the wrong way can create new problems. Also, even if you are nervous, avoid self-deprecating jokes.**No negative talk.**You are the expert when presenting a problem to the class. Proceed with confidence and do not talk badly about yourself or your abilities. (“I’ll probably get this wrong.”) However, if there is a part of the proof or problem that you are unsure about, be honest about that. It would be best to take care of the problem before class, but if it arises while you are presenting, ask the other students or your professor for help. (“I’m not sure if I can say this. Do I have to justify it further?”)

[Image credit: fauxels]

]]>Eventually, we bought some of this soap and then used it all up. Today I finally had my first opportunity to make one. In addition to the soap container, the craft required some clear tubing and hot glue. It looks pretty good, I think!

]]>Like my previous book, *Euler’s Gem* (Princeton University Press, 2008), *Tales of Impossibility* is a historical tale that spans more than two millennia. It is about the famous problems of antiquity—squaring the circle, trisecting an angle, doubling the cube, and constructing regular polygons. These compass-and-straightedge problems were posed by the ancient Greeks and were proved impossible 2000 years later. The book is accessible to anyone who loves mathematics.

If you would like to find out more about the book. You can listen to this recent interview in the *New Books Network* podcast, read this short interview with Princeton University Press, or read this excerpt from the book that appeared in *Lapham’s Quarterly*.

Below is the official blurb about the book and some of the nice things that mathematicians have written about it. I hope you enjoy it! If you read it and enjoy it, please leave a positive review on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever you bought the book!

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**A comprehensive look at four of the most famous problems in mathematics**

*Tales of Impossibility* recounts* *the intriguing story of the renowned problems of antiquity, four of the most famous and studied questions in the history of mathematics. First posed by the ancient Greeks, these compass and straightedge problems—squaring the circle, trisecting an angle, doubling the cube, and inscribing regular polygons in a circle—have served as ever-present muses for mathematicians for more than two millennia. David Richeson follows the trail of these problems to show that ultimately their proofs—demonstrating the impossibility of solving them using only a compass and straightedge—depended on and resulted in the growth of mathematics.

Richeson investigates how celebrated luminaries, including Euclid, Archimedes, Viète, Descartes, Newton, and Gauss, labored to understand these problems and how many major mathematical discoveries were related to their explorations. Although the problems were based in geometry, their resolutions were not, and had to wait until the nineteenth century, when mathematicians had developed the theory of real and complex numbers, analytic geometry, algebra, and calculus. Pierre Wantzel, a little-known mathematician, and Ferdinand von Lindemann, through his work on pi, finally determined the problems were impossible to solve. Along the way, Richeson provides entertaining anecdotes connected to the problems, such as how the Indiana state legislature passed a bill setting an incorrect value for pi and how Leonardo da Vinci made elegant contributions in his own study of these problems.

Taking readers from the classical period to the present, *Tales of Impossibility* chronicles how four unsolvable problems have captivated mathematical thinking for centuries.

“This engaging and well-written book covers more ground than previous books on the classical improbability problems. Numerous historical asides add to the enjoyment of this work. Highly recommended!”

—Eli Maor, author of *Music by the Numbers*

“*Tales of Impossibility* presents an absorbing account of the history and mystery of problems whose infeasibilities are woven into the architecture of mathematics itself. Richeson shows us that what is not possible can be just as inspiring as what is. All math lovers will find gems to mine here.”

—Francis Su, author of *Mathematics for Human Flourishing*

“*Tales of Impossibility* is the story of a mathematical treasure hunt, and it’s a treasure chest in its own right. Inside are nifty proofs, historical surprises, tasty miscellany, and most of all, the rich mathematical narrative of a quest that has consumed geniuses and eccentrics alike. This is the history of math’s greatest tease—and it is immensely satisfying.”

—Ben Orlin, author of *Math with Bad Drawings*

“*Tales of Impossibility* contains mathematics that is interesting and perhaps new to most readers. The book features helpful diagrams and footnotes, quotations that amplify the subject matter, and even funny material here and there.”

—William Dunham, author of *The Calculus Gallery*

“Richeson has put together a fascinating account of mathematical impossibility, focusing on the ruler and compass problems of the ancient Greeks. This is a story of the problems and the people involved—but even more so of the changes in mathematical thinking that made it possible to prove impossibility.”

—Henry Segerman, Oklahoma State University

“Tying together Lincoln, Napoleon, dramatic duels, and amazing intellectual achievements spanning more than two millennia, *Tales of Impossibility* presents a terrific story. Even while unfolding some of the oldest and most familiar logical challenges, Richeson uncovers intriguing ideas and details that will be new to all readers, even the most mathematically experienced.”

—Glen Whitney, founder of the National Museum of Mathematics

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Several years ago, I encountered KnoTiles, which are puzzle pieces that can be used to make mathematical knots. Inspired by KnoTiles, I made puzzle pieces that can be assembled to make mathematical braids. I call the puzzle pieces *BraidTiles.* (Here’s a printable pdf, which I recommend printing in color on heavy cardstock.)

Notice that the twists come in two varieties—left strand over right strand and right strand over left strand. If you replace one twist with the other, you will get a different braid!

]]>Enjoy!

[Update 3/20: I changed a few of the clues.]

]]>However, because it is not yet π Day, I thought I’d introduce you to another number that appears in the book—one that is not as well known but that has a very surprising property. The number is *i ^{i}*; that is, At a glance, this looks like the most imaginary number possible—an imaginary number raised to an imaginary power. But in fact, as Leonhard Euler pointed out to Christian Goldbach in a 1746 letter,

Euler proved that for any angle expressed in radians,

If we take radians (that is, ), then Euler’s formula yields

Therefore,

which is clearly real! Moreover, like π, *i ^{i}* is a transcendental number (and hence an irrational number). This fact was proved in 1929 by the 23-year-old Russian Aleksander Gelfond.

(Actually, as Euler pointed out, *i ^{i}* does not have a single value; rather, it takes on infinitely many real values. The angle

Happy π Day Eve! ( Day? Day?)

]]>So, here is my first creation. It has a mathematical theme. I’ve enjoyed solving crossword puzzles off and on over the years, but I would by no means call myself an aficionado. Thus, I tried my best to write typical crossword-like clues. If anyone would like to offer feedback, post it in the comments below or send me comments by email.

Here’s a printable pdf of the puzzle and a pdf of the solution.

]]>The key to the trick is that there is a hole at the bottom of the post that leads to a pipe that runs up through the post and down through the base of the cup. As the cup fills, so does the pipe. When the liquid gets to the top, it flows down the pipe and gravity does the rest. The pipe acts as a siphon much as the plumbing does in a modern toilet.

Here’s a video of me using the cup and me using a Pythagorean cup that I made.

To make the cup, I pushed a bendy straw through the bottom of a styrofoam cup. It was bent over on the inside so that the opening of the straw was at the base of the cup. (I also put a bead of clue around the hole in the cup so that the liquid wouldn’t leak out around the straw.) It worked beautifully!

If I were a talented potter or had any skills in designing objects for a 3D printer, I’d make a mug with the tube running through the handle. Here’s what I have in mind. If any of you make one, send me a photo—or better, a video—or better still, the real thing!

As for the name “Pythagorean cup”: Do any math/physics/Greek historians have information about the history of this cup? Based on nothing but a gut feeling, I highly doubt this was created by Pythagoras. But I’d definitely be interested in learning the source of this attribution.

Update: On January 1, I received a printable STL file from Pablo Untroib from Argentina. I haven’t had a chance to print it yet. But Pablo did, and it is fantastic. See his video below. He said that when it is sitting on a flat table, it may not leak, but when you pick up the cup, it starts pouring out. A great prank cup!

Further update: On January 4, I received an email from blogger James Stanley who also created a Pythagorean cup—one with the slightly modified design shown below. He wrote about it on his blog. It looks fantastic—I’ll have to print that one too!]

]]>In the logic section of my Discrete Mathematics class (our “intro-to-proofs” class), the students learned about the converse of a conditional statement: the converse of “if A, then B” is “if B, then A.” Most notably, a conditional statement is not logically equivalent to its converse. “If I am over six feet tall, then I am over five feet tall” is a true statement (in my case, the hypothesis is false and the conclusion is true). But the converse, “If I am over five feet tall, then I am over six feet tall” is false.

On my exam, I had a page with the following instructions and the following problem:

*For each of the following problems, determine if such an example exists. If not, state IMPOSSIBLE and give a brief explanation. If so, give an explicit example that satisfies the conditions.*

*A statement that begins “If x≥1, then . . .” and its converse such that the statement is***true**and its converse is**false**.

The answer that I was looking for was something like:

(True) statement: If *x*≥1, then *x*≥0.

(False) converse: If *x*≥0, then *x*≥1.

I class we had discussed that typically when you encounter a conditional like “if *x*≥1, then *x*≥0″ in mathematics, there is an implied universal quantifier. So, mentally, we read it as “for all real numbers *x*, if *x*≥1, then *x*≥0.” My first statement (if *x*≥1, then *x*≥0) is definitely true for all *x*, but the second statement (if *x*≥0, then *x*≥1) is not true for all *x* (for instance, it is not true when *x=*0).

Not everyone answered in this way. Interestingly, I discovered that it was not the case that the more prepared the student, the more likely she or he would get the problem correct (my intended answer). Here’s what I mean:

**Least prepared student:**This student might get it totally wrong, leave the problem blank, not know what the converse of an if-then statement is, and so on.**More prepared:**If a student knew what a converse is, then she or he might get the problem correct without realizing that there were any subtleties.**Yet more prepared:**In class, we talked about the fact that we can only assign truth values to statements. If there is a variable in a sentence, then it is not a statement (it is a predicate). For instance, “the integer*n*is even” is not a statement. It is not true or false unless we know the value of*n*. So, some students wrote on my exam that it was IMPOSSIBLE to solve because we don’t know the value of*x—*it is a predicate, not a statement*.*This was not the answer I was looking for, but I gave them full credit because they were, technically speaking, correct. (In a sense, their answer was more correct than my intended answer.)**Most prepared:**These students would have understood the previous argument, but would also have recalled our discussion of the implied universal quantifier and would have remembered that we had homework problems on this, and thus they would have given the answer I was looking for.

Interestingly, students (2) and (4) may have given the same answer on the paper. But because I know these students and because I saw how they did with the rest of their exam, I honestly suspect (2) and (4) are two different groups. In other words, many of the strongest students in the class got my desired answer and many of the students who struggled elsewhere on the exam got this problem correct. On the other hand, some very strong students fell into category (3).

All-in-all, I wish I’d not asked this question. I ended up giving almost all of the students full credit on the problem, whether they got they got an answer that I had intended to be “the right answer” (i.e., students (2) or (4)) or the more technically correct answer that I did not have in mind (3). But I’m upset that I gave this problem that could be equally interpreted in two different ways.

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