Oxbridge admission question: how many paths are there between opposite corners of a cube?

This is one of my favourite Maths questions. I encountered it among a list of past interview questions for Oxbridge admissions: how can we get from point A to point B using the edges of the cube, without going over the same edge twice?

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I encourage you to try it yourself first, as getting to the solution gave me another glimpse at the beauty of Maths problem solving. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get to a different solution than the one below…

Now, let’s take a look at my process for coming to a solution. I often look at beautiful solutions and think to myself ‘how on Earth did they come up with that?’ So, I’ll show you my exact steps.

First, we need a way of representing the road we take from A to B. Since we can represent an edge by stating its two endpoints, let’s try to label all the vertices of the cube. The natural way to do that is with the standard 3D Cartesian coordinates.

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As you can see, A is chosen to be the origin of the coordinate system. Also, for ease of notation B was chosen to be the point (1, 1, 1), which can be done without changing the problem (all we are doing is re-scaling the cube to have side length 1 which doesn’t affect the number of paths).

It was at this point my friend remarked that the cube was too hard to visualise on paper, which made me realise that we don’t actually have to visualise it in 3D. The only information we need is how the points are connected together – ie. where we can move to from a given point.

So, picking a random point say (1, 0, 1), where can we move? Looking at the diagram you can see that there are three points connected to this point: (1, 1, 1), (1, 0, 0) and (0, 0, 1). From here it is not too hard to deduce that any two points are connected by an edge if their coordinates are different in exactly one place (only in x, y or z from (x, y, z)). And we can use this to show the lines in a 2D way as follows:

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Next, we need some logic for the way we arrange these points in a diagram. In other words, we need more symmetry in the picture. A cube is very symmetric (48 symmetries in total – can you work them all out?) and so our 2D representation should ideally be more symmetric. This was my second attempt:

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…we can do better than that. The central part in the next one is less jumbled.

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Now we’re getting somewhere. Do you notice something in the middle? The path in blue looks like a crumpled hexagon – what would happen if we unravelled it?

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Much better. I’d say we’re almost at the point where we can start counting the ways to get from A to B, we just have a couple of little problems to iron out…

First, B is not symmetrical in the picture. Sure, you could say this is only an aesthetic thing, but symmetry in Maths often helps us to solve things more easily so let’s try to fix it. One idea would be to add 3 ‘B’s into the picture – one for each of the nodes connected to it. But, thinking about this a little deeper, we see that because the path has to end at B – and once we are there we cannot go back – then in fact B does not need to be connected to the rest of the picture. Instead, we can just draw some EXIT signs at the nodes connected to B. Once you reach one of these points, you have two choices: either “exit” the picture through a B (only one way to do that: move to B from that point), or continue along the hexagon. This observation will be very helpful when it comes to counting paths.

Second, we are not quite sure where to go from A. There is no obvious choice for a starting move. From A to… which of the three? Thankfully, due to the symmetry of the picture (and of the problem, of course), we can simply count the ways to get from A to B with the first move being ‘A to (0, 0, 1)’ and then multiply by 3 to get the result. So, let’s do exactly that!

Given our new-found knowledge, we can make very useful simplifications to the picture. Firstly, the line from A to (0, 0, 1) can be replaced simply by an ENTRY sign at (0, 0, 1), since that is our starting move (which we do in exactly one way). Secondly, since we cannot use that first line anymore, we can simply remove it.

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Now things are really starting to take shape. In this form we see that the line through the point A is equivalent to just going from (1, 0, 0) to (0, 1, 0) or the reverse (once we are in A, we cannot go back to where we came from), and so we can simply delete the point A. Also, for neatness, let’s rotate the whole diagram 60 degrees clockwise.

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Perfect! I’d say we are now in a position to start counting paths – remembering that we have to multiply by 3 at the end because of the symmetry of the first move. In fact, looking at our much simplified – and very symmetric – diagram, it becomes apparent that we can also count all of the paths that start by going from the ENTRY POINT to (1, 0, 1) and then multiply by 2 at the end. I told you symmetry was going to be helpful!

The following picture should help with the counting:

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It perhaps looks a little complicated so let’s break it down. Following all the arrows, or doing it on your own, you can hopefully see that by going through an edge once and starting as decided above (ENTRY to (1,0,1)), we have the following:

  • one way to get to the (1, 0, 1) EXIT
  • two ways to get to the (1, 1, 0) EXIT (ah, that pesky purple arrow!)
  • two ways to get to the (0, 1, 1) EXIT (either only on the hexagon, or using the shortcut).

In total, with the chosen start, we have 5 ways to get from A to B. But, don’t forget we need to multiply due to the symmetries that we’ve used to simplify the problem. First, multiply by 2 (we can go to (0, 1, 1) instead of (1, 0, 1) starting from (0, 0, 1)) and get 10 ways. And then multiply by 3, the number of ways to choose an ENTRY point. Thus, the actual total is 30.

ANSWER: 30 Ways to get from A to B!

Whilst we take a well-deserved moment to pat ourselves on the back for getting the right answer, let’s look at some things to take away from this problem.

  1. Even if you are asked about a cube in a problem, you mustn’t get stuck on the idea of a cube. Maths is flexible that way. You can model your cube into any other structure that keeps the important elements in place. In our case, only the ways in which the vertices were connected mattered, not the angles between the lines or anything. Thus, a graph was a fairly good choice.
  2. You can sometimes make use of the symmetry of a problem to make your life easier, as we did with the way we counted the total number of paths. Symmetry plays a very important role in Mathematics, so keep an eye out for it.

I hope you enjoyed my solution and best of luck with your own Maths problems! If you want to discuss something, leave a comment below – this place is always open to interesting solutions or remarks.

The original version of this article can be found here.

Vlad Tuchilus

International Day of Mathematics 2020

Pi Day 2020 was the first ever UNESCO International Day of Mathematics. To celebrate we made a worldwide collaborative video on the theme ‘Mathematics is everywhere’. You can watch the full video here (I’m at 3:39) or just my contribution below – enjoy!

Teaching Mathematics

Following my talk in Madrid in November, I was asked to answer a few questions about the current status of maths teaching based on my experience as a university lecturer. Here are my answers…

How should mathematics be taught in schools?

Through stories. Teaching through story-telling is an incredibly powerful tool and one that is not used enough in mathematics. For example, when teaching trigonometry, rather than just stating the formulae, why not explain WHY they were needed in the first place – by ancient architects trying to construct monuments, by explorers trying to estimate the height of a distant mountain – these are the reasons that mathematics was developed, and I think that teaching it through these stories will help to engage more students with the subject.

Are teachers prepared to teach this subject correctly?

I don’t believe the teachers are at fault – they are told to follow a particular curriculum and due to their heavy workload have no time to develop lessons with engagement at the heart of their design. There are of course ways that we can help teachers, by providing examples of ways to make maths content more interesting and engaging. This can be through story-telling or applications to topics of interest to students such as sport and video games. This is what I try to do with ‘Tom Rocks Maths’, for example see my video teaching Archimedes Principle by answering the question ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’.

In your view, how should a math teacher be?

The most important thing is to have passion for the subject. The level of excitement and interest that the teacher demonstrates when presenting a subject will pass on to the students. Just as enthusiasm is infectious, so too is a lack of it. Beyond passion, there is no typical profile of a maths teacher. Anyone can be a mathematician, and it is very important that people don’t feel that they have to conform to a particular stereotype to teach the subject. I have always just been myself, and hopefully as a public figure in mathematics will inspire others to do the same.

Sometimes, this subject becomes more complicated for some students, not so much because of its difficulty, but because of the way in which they have been taught. What should be done with these students?

The trick is to find a way to explain a topic that resonates with a particular group of students. Let me give you an example from my research: the Navier-Stokes Equations (NSEs). For students who have no real interest in mathematics, I would try to get them to engage by explain the $1-million prize that can be won by solving these equations. For students who have more interest in real-world applications such as in Engineering or Biology, I would tell them about how the aerodynamics of a vehicle or the delivery of a drug in the bloodstream rely on an understanding of Fluid Mechanics and the NSEs. If the students are fans of sport, I can explain how the equations are used to explain the movement of a tennis ball through the air, or for testing the perfect formation in road cycling. Finally, for students who are already keen mathematicians, I would explain how the equations work in almost every situation, except for a few extreme cases where they result in ‘singularities’, which as a mathematician are the ones you are most interested in understanding. Once you know the interests of your audience, you can present a topic in a way that will help them to engage with the material.

Can you get to hate math?

It is certainly possible – though of course alien to mathematician such as myself! I think this feeling of ‘hate’ relates back to either the way that you have been taught the subject, or from a lack of understanding. If you did not enjoy your maths lessons at school and harbour ill feelings towards your teacher, then you will begin to develop negative feelings towards the subject. This is not because you dislike the subject, but more because of the way that it was taught to you. Likewise, if you do not understand mathematics then it is very easy to develop a ‘fear’ of the subject, which can quickly turn into hatred due to feelings of inadequacy or stupidity if not addressed. It all comes back to finding a way to approach the subject that fits with the knowledge and experiences that you already have. If you present a problem in an abstract manner of manipulating random numbers to find a given total, then most people will struggle – regardless of their mathematical ability. But the same problem presented in a relatable situation suddenly becomes understandable. Here’s an example:

(a). Using the following numbers make a total of 314: 1, 1, 2, 5, 10, 10, 20, 20, 50, 100, 100, 500.

(b). You go shopping and the total is €3.14. What coins would you use to pay for your items?

They are the same question, but in (a). the problem looks like a maths question, and in (b). it is an everyday situation that people all over the world are used to. Both require the same maths to solve, but even people who ‘hate’ maths could tell you the correct answer to (b). using their own real-life experience.

Women are at a great disadvantage compared to men when entering a STEM career, why do you think this is happening?

First of all, as a man I am certainly not qualified to answer this question, but I will at least try to provide you with my opinion based on personal experience. At high school level I believe that the difference is less severe (eg. see article here) and even at university there is a slightly higher number of females than males studying science-based subjects. BUT, the issue occurs after this. In graduate degree programmes and beyond there is a definite lack of female researchers, and this is amplified even further at more senior level positions. One explanation could be that academic ‘tenure-track’ positions exist for life, and so many of the men that now hold these positions have done so for the past 30-40 years and were employed when we were doing a much worse job of tackling the gender gap. Now that awareness of these issues has increased, and in general we are doing a much better job at addressing them that we were 30 years ago, hopefully we will begin to see more females in leading positions over the coming years, it will just take a little while for the effect to be seen. I also think that in general there are not enough female role models within many subjects (especially maths) that have reached the pinnacle of their field (through no fault of their own), and as such there is a lack of role models for young female researchers. The achievements of female mathematicians such as Maryam Mirzakhani (2014 Fields Medal) and Karen Uhlenbeck (2019 Abel Prize) should be even more celebrated precisely for this reason.

Do you think that enough importance is given to mathematics in the educational world?

In the past perhaps not, but attitudes are certainly changing. With the increased role that technology and algorithms play in our lives, people are beginning to realise that we need to better understand these processes to be able to make informed decisions – and maths is the key to doing this. Employers are certainly aware of the invaluable skillset possessed by a mathematician and as a result more and more students are choosing to study the subject at degree level and beyond to improve their competitiveness in the job market. Ultimately, attitudes are changing for the better, but there is still more that can be done.

In your opinion, what is the best way to teach this subject?

Exactly as I have described in questions 1 and 4. Storytelling is key to making the material as engaging as possible and knowing the interests of your audience allows you to present the subject in a way that will appeal to them most effectively.

What is the current situation of mathematics research in the university?

I think the main issue facing research mathematics is the relatively recent trend of short-term research outcomes. The majority of funding available to mathematicians requires either continuous publication of new results or outcomes that can readily be used in an applied setting.  The issue of continuous publication means that researchers feel the need to publish a new manuscript every few months, which leads to very small advances at each step, and a wealth of time spent writing and formatting an article instead of conducting actual research. In many cases, the work would be much clearer if published as one piece in its entirety after several years of careful work. The drive for short-term research outcomes means that it is now very difficult to study mathematics just for the sake of it – you have to be able to convince your funding body that your work has real-world applications that will be of benefit to society within the next 5-10 years. To show why this is a disaster for maths research, let’s take the example of Einstein and his work on relativity. Now seen as a one of the most fundamental theories of physics, his work had no practical applications until the invention of GPS 60 years later. In today’s short-term outcomes driven market, it is highly unlikely that Einstein’s work would have been funded.

Photo: Residencia de Estudiantes

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