Math Puzzle from the Ancient Kingdom of Cats

It may look like Cimorene has lain down on the job, but don’t be fooled! She’s hard at work, creating a math investigation for your students to explore.

Cats know how important it can be for students to experiment with math and try new things. Playing with ideas is how kittens (and humans!) learn.

Cimorene wants you to know that the Make 100 Math Rebels Kickstarter offers a great way for human children to learn math through play. She encourages you to go watch the video and read all about the project.

Too often, school math can seem stiff and rigid. To children, it can feel like “Do what I say, whether it makes sense or not.” But cats know that kids are like kittens — they can make sense of ideas just fine if we give them time to play around.

So Cimorene says you should download the free sample journaling pages from the Math Rebels Kickstarter page. The beautiful parchment design makes doing math an adventure.

[The free download will always be there, even after the Kickstarter project ends.]
Make 100 Math Rebels Kickstarter

Cimorene’s Puzzle Challenge

Cimorene’s math puzzle is a classic geometry problem from the ancient Kingdom of Cats: Squaring the Circle.

Draw a circle on your journal page. Can you draw a square (or rectangle) that has the same area?

How would you even begin such a task?

Notice Cimorene’s hint in the photo above: Try drawing the square that just touches the edges of your circle. (We call those just-touching lines “tangents” to the circle.)

  • What do you notice? Do the square and the circle have the same area? How close are they?

The tangent square sets an upper limit on the area of the circle. You can see that any square that exactly matches the circle would have to be smaller than the tangent square.

  • Can you find a square that sets a lower limit on the area of the circle? That is, a square that must have less area than the circle?
  • What’s the biggest square you can draw inside your circle? Can you find a square that has all four corners on the circle?

We call that biggest-inside square “inscribed” in the circle. Any polygon whose corners all sit on the circle is an inscribed polygon.

  • Play around with circles and squares. How close can you get to matching their size?

Further Exploration

After you have explored for awhile on your own, Cimorene has one more twist in her puzzle.

In the ancient Kingdom of Cats, the wise ones estimated the area of a circle this way:

Divide the width of the circle in thirds, and then in thirds again. (That is, cut the diameter into nine parts.) Draw a square with sides measured by eight such parts.

You can try this on your journaling page by drawing a circle that is nine squares wide. Then draw a square overlapping it, with sides that are eight squares in length.

  • How closely do the areas match?

Playing with Pi

Here’s a surprise: Cimorene’s puzzle isn’t really about squares, but about calculus.

The problem of Squaring the Circle is really a much bigger question: Finding the area of a square, rectangle, or other polygon is relatively easy, but how can we discover the area of a curved shape?

For a circle, the area is related to the number pi, which is the number of times you would have to walk across the circle to equal the distance of one time walking around it.

graphic by John Reid (cc by-sa 3.0)

graphic by John Reid (cc by-sa 3.0)
So the problem of Squaring the Circle is really the same as asking, “What is the value of pi?”

  • Can you figure out what approximate value for pi matches the 8/9 square used in the ancient Kingdom of Cats?

If you’d like to learn more about pi, get ready for a celebration: Pi Day is coming soon! Every year, millions of children celebrate math on March 14th, because if you write the date as 3/14, it’s the same as the first three digits of pi.

Find out more about playing with pi in my Pi Day Round-Up post.

You may also enjoy:

Share Your Stories

Cimorene would love to hear about your children’s experiences playing with math! Please share your story in the comments below.

Fractions: 1/5 = 1/10 = 1/80 = 1?

[Feature photo is a screen shot from the video “the sausages sharing episode,” see below.]

Fractions: 1/5 = 1/10 = 1/80 = 1?

How in the world can 1/5 be the same as 1/10? Or 1/80 be the same as one whole thing? Such nonsense!

No, not nonsense. This is real-world common sense from a couple of boys faced with a problem just inside the edge of their ability — a problem that stretches them, but that they successfully solve, with a bit of gentle help on vocabulary.

Here’s the problem:

  • How can you divide eight sausages evenly among five people?

Think for a moment about how you (or your child) might solve this puzzle, and then watch the video below.

What Do You Notice?

Continue reading Fractions: 1/5 = 1/10 = 1/80 = 1?

Egyptian Fractions: The Answer Sheet

Alexandria JonesRemember the Math Adventurer’s Rule: Figure it out for yourself! Whenever I give a problem in an Alexandria Jones story, I will try to post the answer (relatively) soon afterward. But don’t peek! If I tell you the answer, you miss out on the fun of solving the puzzle. So if you haven’t worked these problems yet, go back to the original post. Figure them out for yourself — and then check the answers just to prove that you got them right.

The Secret of Egyptian Fractions

Alex made a poster of Egyptian-style fractions, from 1/2 to 9/10. Many of the fractions were easy. She knew that…

\frac{5}{10}  = \frac{4}{8}  = \frac{3}{6}  = \frac{2}{4}  = \frac{1}{2}

Therefore, as soon as she figured out one fraction, she had the answer to all of its equivalents.

She had the most trouble with the 7ths and 9ths. She tried converting these to other fractions that were easier to work with. For example, 28 has more factors than 7, making 28ths easier to break up into other fractions with one in the numerator.

Continue reading Egyptian Fractions: The Answer Sheet

The Secret of Egyptian Fractions

Photo from Library of Congress via pingnews.

Archaeology professor Dr. Fibonacci Jones came home from a long day of lecturing and office work. Stepping inside the front door, he held up a shiny silver disk.

“Ta-da!” he said.

Rhind papyrus

“All right!” said his daughter Alexandria. “The photos are here.”

They had to chase Alex’s brother Leon off the computer so they could view the images on the CD, but that wasn’t hard. He wanted to see the artifacts, too. Alex recognized several of the items they had dug up from the Egyptian scribe’s burial plot: the wooden palette, some clay pots, and of course the embalmed body.

Then came several close-up pictures of writing on papyrus.

Photo from

How to Write Egyptian Fractions

“I remember how to read the Egyptian numbers,” Alex said, “but what are these marks above them?”

Dr. Jones nodded. “I thought you would catch that. Those are fractions. The scribe places an open mouth, which is the hieroglyph ‘r’, over a number to make its reciprocal.”

“I know that word,” Leon said. “It means one over the number. Like, the reciprocal of 12 is 1/12, right?”

“That is right. 1/12 would be written as…”

The Rest of the Story

As I transcribed this article from my old math newsletter, I realized that it would require more graphics than I was willing to construct. LaTex does not handle Egyptian hieroglyphs — or at least, I don’t know how to make it do so. Instead, I decided to scan the newsletter pages and give them to you as a pdf file:

Right-click and choose “Save” to download:

The file includes a student worksheet for Egyptian fractions from 1/2 to 9/10.

Egyptian Fractions: The Answer Sheet

The answers are now posted.

To Be Continued…

Read all the posts from the January/February 1999 issue of my Mathematical Adventures of Alexandria Jones newsletter.

Egyptian Math: The Answers

Alexandria JonesRemember the Math Adventurer’s Rule: Figure it out for yourself! Whenever I give a problem in an Alexandria Jones story, I will try to post the answer soon afterward. But don’t peek! If I tell you the answer, you miss out on the fun of solving the puzzle. So if you haven’t worked these problems yet, go back to the original posts. Figure them out for yourself—and then check the answers just to prove that you got them right.

Continue reading Egyptian Math: The Answers

Egyptian Geometry and Other Challenges

Rhind papyrus

Would you like to study “the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets”? That is how Scribe Ahmose (also translated Ahmes) described his mathematical papyrus. Ahmose’s masterpiece is now called the Rhind Papyrus, after Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scotsman who was one of the first archaeologists to make meticulous records of his excavations (rather than simply hunting for treasures). Rhind purchased the papyrus from an antiquities dealer in Luxor, Egypt, in 1858.

Ahmose’s writing included a huge table of fractions as well as story problems, geometry, algebra, and accounting. Can you solve any of Scribe Ahmose’s problems?

Continue reading Egyptian Geometry and Other Challenges

Another Egyptian Math Puzzle

Pyramids clip artI have one last puzzle for those of you who are following my Alexandria Jones series on hieroglyphic math and the Egyptian scribe’s method of multiplication by doubling. Here is the “teaser” problem from the cover of the Sept./Oct.1998 issue of my newsletter:

One more Egyptian math puzzle (pdf, 53KB)

Continue reading Another Egyptian Math Puzzle

Egyptian Math Puzzles

Pyramids clip artWhat we know about ancient Egyptian mathematics comes primarily from two papyri, the first one written around 1850 BC. Moscow papyrus problem 14This is called the Moscow papyrus, because it now belongs to Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The scroll contains 25 problems, mostly practical examples of various calculations. Problem 14, which finds the volume of a frustrum (a pyramid with its top cut off), is often cited by mathematicians as the most impressive Egyptian pyramid of all.

Continue reading Egyptian Math Puzzles