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Archive of posts filed under the Geometry category.

Regents Recap, August 2017: How Do You Explain that Two Things are Equal?

Sue believes these two cylinders from the August, 2017 New York Regents Geometry exam have equal volumes. Is Sue correct? Explain why.

Yes, Sue, you are correct: the two cylinders have equal volumes. I computed both volumes and clearly indicated that they are the same. Take a look!

Wait. Why did I only get half-credit? What’s the problem, Sue? You don’t think this is an “explanation”? The two volumes are equal. The explanation for why they are equal is that I computed both volumes and got the same number. I don’t know of any better explanation for two things being equal than that.

What’s that? You wanted me to say “Cavalieri’s Principle”? But if I compute the two volumes and show that they are equal, why would I need to say they are equal because of some other reason?  Oh, never mind, Sue. See you in Algebra 2.

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Symmetry, Algebra and the Monster — Quanta Magazine

I’m excited to announce the launch of my column for Quanta Magazine!  In Quantized Academy I’ll be writing about the fundamental mathematical ideas that underlie Quanta’s stories on cutting edge science and research. Quanta consistently produces exciting, high-quality science journalism, and it’s a tremendous honor to be a part of it.

My debut column, Symmetry, Algebra and the Monster, uses the symmetries of the square to explore the basic group theory that connects algebra and geometry.

You could forgive mathematicians for being drawn to the monster group, an algebraic object so enormous and mysterious that it took them nearly a decade to prove it exists. Now, 30 years later, string theorists — physicists studying how all fundamental forces and particles might be explained by tiny strings vibrating in hidden dimensions — are looking to connect the monster to their physical questions. What is it about this collection of more than 10^53 elements that excites both mathematicians and physicists? 

The full article is freely available here.

8/15/17 — Happy Pythagorean Triple Day!

Today we celebrate a rare Pythagorean Triple day!  And especially rare, as 8-15-17 is a primitive Pythagorean triple.  We won’t see many more of those!

Here’s an animation I made to celebrate.

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Regents Recap — June, 2017: Consistency and Precision

Two prominent themes of my critical review of the New York State Regents exams in mathematics are consistency and precision in language.  Here’s a pair of problems from the June 2017 Geometry exam that illustrates both issues.

First, the phrasing of the question “What is the number of degrees in the measure of angle ABC?” is awkward and somewhat unnatural.  Second, if we are going to ask for “the number of degrees” in the measure of an angle, then the answer should be a number.  The answer choices here are not numbers: they are degree measurements.

Why not simply ask for the measure of the angle, as was done in question 10 on the exact same exam?

While the issue in question 4 is minor, we know that imprecise use of language is deeply connected to student misconceptions in mathematics.  And we know that an important part of our job as teachers is getting students to use technical language correctly.  Our exams should model the mathematical clarity and precision that we expect of students in our classes.  Far too often, the New York State Regents exams don’t meet that standard.

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Jason Merrill’s Lawnmower Puzzle

Jason Merrill recently posted a fun geometry puzzle inspired by his work on the Lawnmower Math activity for Desmos.  Here’s my paraphrase of the puzzle:

Suppose a lawnmower is tethered to a circular peg in the middle of the lawn. As the lawnmower moves along its spiral path, the rope shortens as its winds around the peg. At the moment the lawnmower contacts the peg, how much rope remains uncoiled?

When I first considered this problem it seemed hard.  After some thought, it seemed obvious.  Then, after some more thought, it seemed hard again.  That’s the sign of a compelling problem!

I enjoyed working out a solution, the heart of which I’ve included below.  Jason graciously included my solution in his post sharing his own, and he also does a wonderful job describing the journey of making simplifying assumptions, both mathematical and physical, that allow us to start moving toward a solution.  It’s the kind of work that often goes unmentioned in problem solving, especially in school mathematics, and this puzzle provides a nice opportunity to make that thinking transparent.

I highly recommend reading the puzzle and his solution at his blog.  Thanks for the fun problem, Jason!