Go Pro!

Ask Professor Puzzler

Do you have a question you would like to ask Professor Puzzler? Click here to ask your question!
Yearly archive for 2018.

"Are there any tricks that can help you easily factor three digit numbers (without using a calculator)?" ~Jay

Hi Jay, I assume you're talking about tricks besides the normal divisibility rules (for example, if the digits add to three, the number is a multiple of three, if it ends in 0 or 5 the number is divisble by 5, etc). If you're not familiar with those rules, you might want to take a look at this unit here: Divisibility Rules.

Beyond that, there are some tricks that sometimes help. Here's my favorite. Let's say you wanted to factor the number 483. Here's what I would do:

  1. Multiply the first and last digit: 4 x 3 = 12
  2. Find two numbers that multiply to 12 and add to the middle digit (8). The numbers are 6 and 2 (6 + 2 = 8 and 6 x 2 = 12).
  3. Now rewrite the number using those two numbers we just found: 483 = 460 + 23 (the tens place got split into two pieces using our numbers, and the entire number was rewritten as a sum of two numbers).
  4. Now factor the result: 460 + 23 = 23(20 + 1) = 23 x 21.
  5. Finish factoring: 23 x 7 x 3

Unfortunately, this doesn't always work. For example, it won't work for 648, because you can't find two numbers that add to 4 and multiply to 48. But maybe if we can find a way of regrouping this number, we might get around that. My first thought is to pull out one of the "hundreds" and put it into the tens place. So we're thinking of 648 as being rewritten 5(14)8. Now we do 5 x 8 = 40, and realize that our two numbers must be 4 and 10 (4 + 10 = 14 and 4 x 10 = 40). So we rewrite the number: (600 + 48 = 24(25 + 2) = 24 x 27. Then we just finish the prime factorization from there.

If the number is one of those special numbers (like 483) that can be factored without regrouping, it's a straightforward, foolproof process. But if the number has to be regrouped, it requires a bit of intuition to work it out. However, if you don't have a calculator, it might be worth doing!


Thabang from Lesotho writes, "how do we rationalize a denominator consisting of a cube root with another constant added to it or subtracted from it?"

Good morning, Thabang, and thank you for your question. This is actually something I don't remember ever seeing before, so I had to give it some thought before answering. 

What you're looking for is, how do we rationalize the denominator, if the denominator is something like "The cube root of three, plus two" or "the cube root of three, minus two"?

In order to solve this, it's important to remember two factoring rules you may have learned in an Algebra class:

x3 + y3 = (x + y)(x2 - xy + y2)
x3 - y3 = (x - y)(x2 + xy + y2)

Let's say your denominator is the cube root of three, plus two. Then I'm going to do the following substitutions:

Let x = the cube root of three, let y = 2.

Now your denominator is x + y, and if you multiply the numerator and denominator of the fraction by (x2 - xy + y2), you will have turned the denominator into x3 + y3 = 3 + 8 = 11, which is rational.

That was using the first factoring rule shown above. If the denominator had a subtraction (the cube root of three, minus two), we'd just use the second factoring rule, and multiply by (x2 + xy + y2).

Thanks again for asking, Thabang.

Navya asks: "Why do we have names for numbers?"

There are two answers to this question. The first answer is: because it's impossible to talk about numbers verbally unless you have names for them. If we didn't have the names "one", "two", "three" and so forth, how would we ever say "I have five apples"?

That explanation is sufficient for why we have names for the numbers from zero to nine, but it's not sufficient for numbers like eleven, twelve, and so on. After all, if we didn't have the name "eleven", we could still say the number by saying "one one."

Thus, we would count like this (starting at ten): "one zero, one one, one two, one three..." and so forth.

And in some cases, that would be quicker. The name "eleven" has three syllables, while "one one" just has two. Even worse would be a number like "three thousand, four hundred, sixty three" which takes nine syllables instead of the four syllables required for "three four six three".

So, since the number names aren't always quicker to say than just reciting off the digits, why do we bother? The answer is that using number names allows us to get an immediate order-of-magnitude sense for how big the number is. Look at it this way - if I say "seven million, two hundred twenty three thousand, four hundred twelve," the moment I said "seven million" you had a very good sense for how big that number is. But if instead I had said "seven two two three four one two" you would not have any way of determining the number's magnitude until I was all done reciting the digits, and you knew how many digits there were. And if you lost track of how many digits there were, you still wouldn't have a good sense for how big the number is!

So number names are very helpful for order-of-magnitude sense of the size of a number.

Sarah asks, "On your site you asked the following question and i believe your answer is incorrect. "I have a drawer with 10 socks. 6 are blue and 4 are red. I draw a blue sock randomly and then I draw a red sock randomly. Are these independent or dependent events". You answered even though it is without replacement these are independent. I believe the answer should be dependent, since there is one less sock in the draw when you pick the red one. Am I correct?"

Hi Sarah, thanks for asking this question. I went back and looked at the page your question refers to (Independent and Dependent Events) and realized that the question you were asking about may be a bit ambiguous in how it's worded. Does it mean:

  1. I drew a sock specifically from the set of blue socks (in other words, I looked in the drawer to find the blue socks, and then randomly selected from that subset) or...
  2. I reached into the drawer without looking, and randomly pulled out a sock from the entire set, and that randomly selected sock happened to be blue.

I write competition math problems for various math leagues, and I always hate writing probability problems, because they can be so easily written in an ambiguous way (my proofreader hates proofreading them for the same reason). In this case, let's take a look at these two possible interpretations of the problem.

In the first case, the two events are clearly independent; it doesn't matter which of the blue socks was chosen; there are still 4 red socks, and the probability of choosing any particular red sock is 1/4. Thus, the second event is not affected by the first event.

In the second case, I randomly pulled a sock from the drawer, but now we're given the additional information that this sock happened to be blue. So this means that when I reach back into the drawer, there are now nine socks to choose from (not four, as in the previous case, because we assume I'm picking from the entire contents of the drawer.) Since we know that the sock I first chose is blue, there are still 4 red socks, so the probability of choosing a red is 4/9. We get a different answer if we read it this way, but we still have two events that don't affect each other. Since we know the first sock was blue, it doesn't matter which blue sock it was. The specifics of the draw don't affect the outcome of the second draw.

Here's how to make these two events dependent: don't specify that the first draw was blue. Now the result of the second draw is very much dependent on whether or not the first draw was blue. That's probably the situation you were thinking of.

Thank you for asking the question - as a result of your question, I'm going to do some tweaking in the wording of that problem. I don't want it to be ambiguous - especially since the second reading of the problem delves into conditional probabilities, which I don't address on that page!

The greatest irony of the meme shown below... that the person who created it clearly has not YET started paying logic class, or in science class.

Maybe I should create a web series of these adventures:

"If I'm not supposed to eat the entire contents of a saltshaker at once, why does my wife keep putting salt in my food?"

"If water is so good for you, how come people keep drowning in the ocean?"

"If arsenic is a deadly poison, why aren't all the people who eat rice dead?"

"Why am I not supposed to eat the whole jar of Metamucil if Metamucil keeps me regular?"

"If carbon dioxide can cause convulsions and loss of consciousness, why do we allow so many trees on our planet?"

"If One A Day vitamins are so good for you, why are you limited to only one a day?"

Once Guy-Who-Just-Started-Paying-Attention figures out the answers to these questions, he should probably start looking into the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide...

Older posts

Blogs on This Site

Reviews and book lists - books we love!
The site administrator fields questions from visitors.
Like us on Facebook to get updates about new resources
Pro Membership