My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Koenigsberg Bridge Problem


Today’s A To Z term was nominated by Bunny Hugger. I’m glad to write about it. The problem is foundational to both graph theory and topology.

I’m more fluent in graph theory, and my writing will reflect that. But its critical insight involves looking at spaces and ignoring things like distance and area and angle. It is amazing that one can discard so much of geometry and still have anything to consider. What we do learn then applies to very many problems.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Königsberg Bridge Problem.

Once upon a time there was a city named Königsberg. It no longer is. It is Kaliningrad now. It’s no longer in that odd non-contiguous chunk of Prussia facing the Baltic Sea. It’s now in that odd non-contiguous chunk of Russia facing the Baltic Sea.

I put it this way because what the city evokes, to mathematicians, is a story. I do not have specific reason to think the story untrue. But it is a good story, and as I think more about history I grow more skeptical of good stories. A good story teaches, though not always the thing it means to convey.

The story is this. The city is on two sides of the Pregel river, now the Pregolya River. Two large islands are in the river. For several centuries these four land masses were connected by a total of seven bridges. And we are told that people in the city would enjoy free time with an idle puzzle. Was there a way to walk all seven bridges one and only one time? If no one did something fowl like taking a boat to cross the river, or not going the whole way across a bridge, anyway? There were enough bridges, though, and enough possible ways to cross them, that trying out every option was hopeless.

Then came Leonhard Euler. Who is himself a preposterous number of stories. Pick any major field of mathematics; there is an Euler’s Theorem at its center. Or an Euler’s Formula. Euler’s Method. Euler’s Function. Likely he brought great new light to it.

And in 1736 he solved the Königsberg Bridge Problem. The answer was to look at what would have to be true for a solution to exist. He noticed something so obvious it required genius not to dismiss it. It seems too simple to be useful. In a successful walk you enter each land mass (river bank or island) the same number of times you leave it. So if you cross each bridge exactly once, you use an even number of bridges per land mass. The exceptions are that you must start at one land mass, and end at a land mass. Maybe a different one. How you get there doesn’t count for the problem. How you leave doesn’t either. So the land mass you start from may have an odd number of bridges. So may the one you end on. So there are up to two land masses that may have an odd number of bridges.

Once this is observed, it’s easy to tell that Königsberg’s Bridges did not match that. All four land masses in Königsberg have an odd number of bridges. And so we could stop looking. It’s impossible to walk the seven bridges exactly once each in a tour, not without cheating.

Graph theoreticians, like the topologists of my prologue, now consider this foundational to their field. To look at a geographic problem and not concern oneself with areas and surfaces and shapes? To worry only about how sets connect? This guides graph theory in how to think about networks.

The city exists, as do the islands, and the bridges existed as described. So does Euler’s solution. And his reasoning is sound. The reasoning is ingenious, too. Everything hard about the problem evaporates. So what do I doubt about this fine story?

Well, I don’t know that this bridge problem was something the people of Königsberg thought about. At least not in the way it’s presented, this idle problem everyone who visited the river wondered about without trying very hard to solve. The only people I ever hear discussing this are mathematicians. And mathematicians are as fond of good stories as anyone else, and accept that when the reality is messy and ambiguous and confused. I’m not alone in having doubts. The Mathematics Association of America’s web page about the problem concedes it is “according to lore” that the people of the city had this problem.

Teo Paoletti, author of that web page, says Danzig mayor Carl Leonhard Gottlieb Ehler wrote Euler, asking for a solution. This falls short of proving that the bridges were a common subject of speculation. It does show at least that Ehler thought it worth pondering. Euler apparently did not think it was even mathematics. Not that he thought it was hard; he simply thought it didn’t depend on mathematical principles. It took only reason. But he did find something interesting: why was it not mathematics? Paoletti quotes Euler as writing:

This question is so banal, but seemed to me worthy of attention in that [neither] geometry, nor algebra, nor even the art of counting was sufficient to solve it.

I am reminded of a mathematical joke. It’s about the professor who always went on at great length about any topic, however slight. I have no idea why this should stick with me. Finally one day the professor admitted of something, “This problem is not interesting.” The students barely had time to feel relief. The professor went on: “But the reasons why it is not interesting are very interesting. So let us explore that.”

The Königsberg Bridge Problem is in the first chapter of every graph theory book ever. And it is a good graph theory problem. It may not be fair to say it created graph theory, though. Euler seems to have treated this as a little side bit of business, unrelated to his real mathematics. Graph theory as we know it — as a genre — formed in the 19th century. So did topology. In hindsight we can see how studying these bridges brought us good questions to ask, and ways to solve them. But for something like a century after Euler published this, it was just the clever solution to a recreational mathematics puzzle. It was as important as finding knight’s tours of chessboards.

That we take it as the introduction to graph theory, and maybe topology, tells us something. It is an easy problem to pose. Its solution is clever, but not obscure. It takes no long chains of complex reasoning. Many people approach mathematics problems with fear. By telling this story, we promise mathematics that feels as secure as a stroll along the riverfront. This promise is good through about chapter three, section four, where there are four definitions on one page and the notation summons obscure demons of LaTeX.

Still. Look at what the story of the bridges tells us. We notice something curious about our environment. The problem seems mathematical, or at least geographic. The problem is of no consequence. But it lingers in the mind. The obvious approaches to solving it won’t work. But think of the problem differently. The problem becomes simple. And better than simple. It guides one to new insights. In a century it gives birth to two fields of mathematics. In two centuries these are significant fields. They’re things even non-mathematicians have heard of. It’s almost a mathematician’s fantasy of insight and accomplishment.

But this does happen. The world suggests no end of little mathematics problems. Sometimes they are wonderful. Richard Feynman’s memoirs tell of his imagination being captured by a plate spinning in the air. Solving that helped him resolve a problem in developing Quantum Electrodynamics. There are more mundane problems. One of my professors in grad school remembered tossing and catching a tennis racket and realizing he didn’t know why sometimes it flipped over and sometimes didn’t. His specialty was in dynamical systems, and he could work out the mechanics of what a tennis racket should do, and when. And I know that within me is the ability to work out when a pile of books becomes too tall to stand on its own. I just need to work up to it.

The story of the Königsberg Bridge Problem is about this. Even if nobody but the mayor of Danzig pondered how to cross the bridges, and he only got an answer because he infected Euler with the need to know? It is a story of an important piece of mathematics. Good stories will tell us things that are true, which are not necessarily the things that happen in them.


Thanks for reading this. All of the Fall 2019 A To Z posts ought to be at this link. On Thursday I should publish my ‘L’ post. All of my past A To Z essays should be available at this link, And tomorrow I hope to finish off the comic strips worth just quick mentions from last week. See you then.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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