Archive for the Cute Problems Category

Acute Geometry Problem

Posted in Cute Problems, mathematics on December 3, 2018 by telescoper

I saw a plea for help on Twitter from Astronomer Bryan Gaensler who is stuck with his son’s homework.

So please give him a hand by solving this to find a, b and c.

Your time starts now.


Hubble Problems

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 12, 2018 by telescoper

Here I am, only connecting again.

Almost every day I get a spam message from a certain person who thinks he can determine the Hubble constant from first principles using  biblical references. The preceding link takes you to an ebook. I was thinking of buying it, but at 99c* I considered it prohibitively expensive.

*I am informed that it has now gone up to £1.30.

My correspondent also alleges that in writing this blog I am doing the Devil’s work. That may be the case, of course, but I can’t help thinking that there must be more effective ways for him to get his work done. Either that or he’s remarkably unambitious.

Anyway, to satisfy my correspondent here is one for the problems folder:

Using  the information provided in Isaiah Chapter 40 verse 22, show that the value of the Hubble constant is precisely 70.98047 km s-1 Mpc-1.

You may quote the relevant biblical verse without proof. In the King James version it reads:

40.22. It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.

By the way, please note that the inverse of the Hubble constant has dimensions of time, not distance.

Answers into my spam folder please (via the comments box).


While I am on the subject of Hubble, I will mention the news that the Hubble Space Telescope is having a few technical problems as a result of a failure of one of its gyros. In fact a few days ago it went into `safe mode’ to help engineers diagnose and fix the problem, during which time no observations are being taken. I’m told by people who know about such things that the spacecraft can actually operate on only one gyro if necessary, using information from other systems for attitude control, so this problem is not going to be terminal, but it will slow down the pointing quite a bit thus make it less efficient. With a bit of luck HST will be back in operation soon.





A Problem with a Geostationary Orbit

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 26, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been sorting through some old problem sets for my course on Astrophysics and Cosmology, and thought I would post this one in the Cute Problems folder for your amusement. The first part is easy, the second part not so much…

  1. Verify that the radius of a circular geostationary orbit around the Earth is about 42,000 km, i.e. find the radius of a circular  orbit around the Earth which has a period of 24 hours so it is always above the same point on the Earth’s surface . (You will need to look up the mass of the Earth.)
  2. Use the answer to (1)  to estimate what fraction of the Earth’s surface is visible at any  time from a satellite in such an orbit. (You will need to look up the radius of the Earth.)

Answers to (2) through the comments box please – and don’t forget to explain your working!

The Problem of the Moving Triangle

Posted in Cute Problems, mathematics with tags , , on August 16, 2018 by telescoper

I found this nice geometric puzzle a few days ago on Twitter. It’s not too hard, but I thought I’d put it in the `Cute Problems‘ folder.

In the above diagram, the small equilateral triangle moves about inside the larger one in such a way that it keeps the orientation shown. What can you say about the sum a+b+c?

Answers through the comments box please, and please show your working!

The Problem with Odd Moments

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cute Problems, mathematics with tags , , on July 9, 2018 by telescoper

Last week, realizing that it had been a while since I posted anything in the cute problems folder, I did a quick post before going to a meeting. Unfortunately, as a couple of people pointed out almost immediately, there was a problem with the question (a typo in the form of a misplaced bracket). I took the post offline until I could correct it and then promptly forgot about it. I remembered it yesterday so have now corrected it. I also added a useful integral as a hint at the end, because I’m a nice person. I suggest you start by evaluating the expectation value (i.e. the first-order moment). Answers to parts (2) and (3) through the comments box please!

Answers to (2) and (3) via the comments box please!


SOLUTION: I’ll leave you to draw your own sketch but, as Anton correctly points out, this is a distribution that is asymmetric about its mean but has all odd-order moments equal (including the skewness) equal to zero. it therefore provides a counter-example to common assertions, e.g. that asymmetric distributions must have non-zero skewness. The function shown in the problem was originally given by Stieltjes, but a general discussion can be be found in E. Churchill (1946) Information given by odd moments, Ann. Math. Statist. 17, 244-6. The paper is available online here.

100 Years of Feynman

Posted in Cute Problems, Education with tags , , , , , , on May 11, 2018 by telescoper

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Noble Prize-winning physicist, science communicator and bongo player Richard Feyman. It’s great to see so many articles about him today, so I was wondering how to do my own quick tribute before I head to London for the Royal Astronomical Society Annual General Meeting this afternoon.

With university exams coming up it seemed a good idea to celebrate Richard Feynman’s legacy by combining todays 100th anniversary with some tips (inspired by Feynman) about how to tackle physics problems, not only in terms of how to solve them but also how to present the answer in an appropriate way.

Richard-Feynman-cornellI began with Richard Feynman’s formula (the geezer in the above picture) for solving physics problems:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think very hard.
  3. Write down the answer.

That may seem either arrogant or facetious, or just a bit of a joke, but that’s really just the middle bit. Feynman’s advice on points 1 and 3 is absolutely spot on and worth repeating many times to an audience of physics students.

I’m a throwback to an older style of school education when the approach to solving unseen mathematical or scientific problems was emphasized much more than it is now. Nowadays much more detailed instructions are given in School examinations than in my day, often to the extent that students  are only required to fill in blanks in a solution that has already been mapped out.

I find that many, particularly first-year, students struggle when confronted with a problem with nothing but a blank sheet of paper to write the solution on. The biggest problem we face in physics education, in my view, is not the lack of mathematical skill or background scientific knowledge needed to perform calculations, but a lack of experience of how to set the problem up in the first place and a consequent uncertainty about, or even fear of, how to start. I call this “blank paper syndrome”.

In this context, Feynman’s advice is the key to the first step of solving a problem. When I give tips to students I usually make the first step a bit more general, however. It’s important to read the question too. The key point is to write down the information given in the question and then try to think how it might be connected to the answer. To start with, define appropriate symbols and draw relevant diagrams. Also write down what you’re expected to prove or calculate and what physics might relate that to the information given.

The middle step is more difficult and often relies on flair or the ability to engage in lateral thinking, which some people do more easily than others, but that does not mean it can’t be nurtured.  The key part is to look at what you wrote down in the first step, and then apply your little grey cells to teasing out – with the aid of your physics knowledge – things that can lead you to the answer, perhaps via some intermediate quantities not given directly in the question. This is the part where some students get stuck and what one often finds is an impenetrable jumble of mathematical symbols  swirling around randomly on the page. The process of problem solving is not always linear. Sometimes it helps to work back a little from the answer you are expected to prove before you can return to the beginning and find a way forward.

Everyone gets stuck sometimes, but you can do yourself a big favour by at least putting some words in amongst the algebra to explain what it is you were attempting to do. That way, even if you get it wrong, you can be given some credit for having an idea of what direction you were thinking of travelling.

The last of Feynman’s steps  is also important. I lost count of the coursework attempts I marked this week in which the student got almost to the end, but didn’t finish with a clear statement of the answer to the question posed and just left a formula dangling.  Perhaps it’s because the students might have forgotten what they started out trying to do, but it seems very curious to me to get so far into a solution without making absolutely sure you score the points.  IHaving done all the hard work, you should learn to savour the finale in which you write “Therefore the answer is…” or “This proves the required result”. Scripts that don’t do this are like detective stories missing the last few pages in which the name of the murderer is finally revealed.

So, putting all these together, here are the three tips I gave to my undergraduate students this morning.

  1. Read the question! Some students give solutions to problems other than that which is posed. Make sure you read the question carefully. A good habit to get into is first to translate everything given in the question into mathematical form and define any variables you need right at the outset. Also drawing a diagram helps a lot in visualizing the situation, especially helping to elucidate any relevant symmetries.
  2. Remember to explain your reasoning when doing a mathematical solution. Sometimes it is very difficult to understand what students are trying to do from the maths alone, which makes it difficult to give partial credit if they are trying to the right thing but just make, e.g., a sign error.
  3.  Finish your solution appropriately by stating the answer clearly (and, where relevant, in correct units). Do not let your solution fizzle out – make sure the marker knows you have reached the end and that you have done what was requested. In other words, finish with a flourish!

There are other tips I might add – such as checking answers by doing the numerical parts at least twice on your calculator and thinking about whether the order-of-magnitude of the answer is physically reasonable – but these are minor compared to the overall strategy.

And another thing is not to be discouraged if you find physics problems difficult. Never give up without a fight. It’s only by trying difficult things that you can improve your ability by learning from your mistakes. It’s not the job of a physics lecturer to make physics seem easy but to encourage you to believe that you can do things that are difficult!


A Problem involving Simpson’s Rule

Posted in Cute Problems, mathematics with tags , on March 9, 2018 by telescoper

Since I’m teaching a course on Computational Physics here in Maynooth and have just been doing methods of numerical integration (i.e. quadrature) I thought I’d add this little item to the Cute Problems folder. You might answer it by writing a short bit of code, but it’s easy enough to do with a calculator and a piece of paper if you prefer.

Use the above expression, displayed using my high-tech mathematical visualization software, to obtain an approximate value for π/4 (= 0.78539816339…) by estimating the integral on the left hand side using Simpson’s Rule at ordinates x =0, 0.25, 0.5, 0.75 and 1.

Comment on the accuracy of your result. Solutions and comments through the box please.

HINT 1: Note that the calculation just involves two applications of the usual three-point Simpson’s Rule with weights (1/3, 4/3, 1/3). Alternatively you could do it in one go using weights (1/3, 4/3, 2/3, 4/3, 1/3).

HINT 2: If you’ve written a bit of code to do this, you could try increasing the number of ordinates and see how the result changes…

P.S. Incidentally I learn that, in Germany, Simpson’s Rule is sometimes called called Kepler’s rule, or Keplersche Fassregel after Johannes Kepler, who used something very similar about a century before Simpson…