The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Ulam’s Spiral


Gaurish, of For the love of Mathematics, asked me about one of those modestly famous (among mathematicians) mathematical figures. Yeah, I don’t have a picture of it. Too much effort. It’s easier to write instead.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

Ulam’s Spiral.

Boredom is unfairly maligned in our society. I’ve said this before, but that was years ago, and I have some different readers today. We treat boredom as a terrible thing, something to eliminate. We treat it as a state in which nothing seems interesting. It’s not. Boredom is a state in which anything, however trivial, engages the mind. We would not count the tiles on the floor, or time the rocking of a chandelier, or wonder what fraction of solitaire games can be won if we were never bored. A bored mind is a mind ready to discover things. We should welcome the state.

Several times in the 20th century Stanislaw Ulam was bored. I mention solitaire games because, according to Ulam, he spent some time in 1946 bored, convalescent and playing a lot of solitaire. He got to wondering what’s the probability a particular solitaire game is winnable? (He was specifically playing Canfield solitaire. The game’s also called Demon, Chameleon, or Storehouse, if Wikipedia is right.) What’s the chance the cards can’t be played right, no matter how skilled the player is? It’s a problem impossible to do exactly. Ulam was one of the mathematicians designing and programming the computers of the day.

He, with John von Neumann, worked out how to get a computer to simulate many, many rounds of cards. They would get an answer that I have never seen given in any history of the field. The field is Monte Carlo simulations. It’s built on using random numbers to conduct experiments that approximate an answer. (They’re also what my specialty is in. I mention this for those who’ve wondered what, if any, mathematics field I do consider myself competent in. This is not it.) The chance of a winnable deal is about 71 to 72 percent, although actual humans can’t hope to do more than about 35 percent. My evening’s experience with this Canfield Solitaire game suggests the chance of winning is about zero.

In 1963, Ulam told Martin Gardner, he was bored again during a paper’s presentation. Ulam doodled, and doodled something interesting enough to have a computer doodle more than mere pen and paper could. It was interesting enough to feature in Gardner’s Mathematical Games column for March 1964. It started with what the name suggested, a spiral.

Write down ‘1’ in the center. Write a ‘2’ next to it. This is usually done to the right of the ‘1’. If you want the ‘2’ to be on the left, or above, or below, fine, it’s your spiral. Write a ‘3’ above the ‘2’. (Or below if you want, or left or right if you’re doing your spiral that way. You’re tracing out a right angle from the “path” of numbers before that.) A ‘4’ to the left of that, a ‘5’ under that, a ‘6’ under that, a ‘7’ to the right of that, and so on. A spiral, for as long as your paper or your patience lasts. Now draw a circle around the ‘2’. Or a box. Whatever. Highlight it. Also do this for the ‘3’, and the ‘5’, and the ‘7’ and all the other prime numbers. Do this for all the numbers on your spiral. And look at what’s highlighted.

It looks like …

It’s …

Well, it’s something.

It’s hard to say what exactly. There’s a lot of diagonal lines to it. Not uninterrupted lines. Every diagonal line has some spottiness to it. There are blank regions too. There are some long stretches of numbers not highlighted, many of them horizontal or vertical lines with no prime numbers in them. Those stop too. The eye can’t help seeing clumps, especially. Imperfect diagonal stitching across the fabric of the counting numbers.

Maybe seeing this is some fluke. Start with another number in the center. 2, if you like. 41, if you feel ambitious. Repeat the process. The details vary. But the pattern looks much the same. Regions of dense-packed broken diagonals, all over the plane.

It begs us to believe there’s some knowable pattern here. That we could get an artist to draw a figure, with each spot in the figure corresponding to a prime number. This would be great. We know many things about prime numbers, but we don’t really have any system to generate a lot of prime numbers. Not much better than “here’s a thing, try dividing it”. Back in the 80s and 90s we had the big Fractal Boom. Everybody got computers that could draw what passed for pictures. And we could write programs that drew them. The Ulam Spiral was a minor but exciting prospect there. Was it a fractal? I don’t know. I’m not sure if anyone knows. (The spiral like you’d draw on paper wouldn’t be. The spiral that went out to infinitely large numbers might conceivably be.) It seemed plausible enough for computing magazines to be interested in. Maybe we could describe the pattern by something as simple as the Koch curve (that wriggly triangular snowflake shape). Or as easy to program as the Mandelbrot Curve.

We haven’t found one. As keeps happening with prime numbers, the answers evade us. We can understand why diagonals should appear. Write a polynomial of the form 4n^2 + b n + c . Evaluate it for n of 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. Highlight those numbers. This will tend to highlight numbers that, in this spiral, are diagonal or horizontal or vertical lines. A lot of polynomials like this give a string of some prime numbers. But the polynomials all peter out. The lines all have interruptions.

There are other patterns. One, predating Ulam’s boring paper by thirty years, was made by Laurence Klauber. Klauber was a herpetologist of some renown, if Wikipedia isn’t misleading me. It claims his Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind is still an authoritative text. I don’t know and will defer to people versed in the field. It also credits him with several patents in electrical power transmission.

Anyway, Klauber’s Triangle sets a ‘1’ at the top of the triangle. The numbers ‘2 3 4’ under that, with the ‘3’ directly beneath the ‘1’. The numbers ‘5 6 7 8 9’ beneath that, the ‘7’ directly beneath the ‘3’. ’10 11 12 13 14 15 16′ beneath that, the ’13’ underneath the ‘7’. And so on. Again highlight the prime numbers. You get again these patterns of dots and lines. Many vertical lines. Some lines in isometric view. It looks like strands of Morse Code.

In 1994 Robert Sacks created another variant. This one places the counting numbers on an Archimedian spiral. Space the numbers correctly and highlight the primes. The primes will trace out broken curves. Some are radial. Some spiral in (or out, if you rather). Some open up islands. The pattern looks like a Saul Bass logo for a “Nifty Fifty”-era telecommunications firm or maybe an airline.

You can do more. Draw a hexagonal spiral. Triangular ones. Other patterns of laying down numbers. You get patterns. The eye can’t help seeing order there. We can’t quite pin down what it is. Prime numbers keep evading our full understanding. Perhaps it would help to doodle a little during a tiresome conference call.


Stanislaw Ulam did enough fascinating numerical mathematics that I could probably do a sequence just on his work. I do want to mention one thing. It’s part of information theory. You know the game Twenty Questions. Play that, but allow for some lying. The game is still playable. Ulam did not invent this game; Alfréd Rényi did. (I do not know anything else about Rényi.) But Ulam ran across Rényi’s game, and pointed out how interesting it was, and mathematicians paid attention to him.

A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Wlog


Wait for it.

Wlog.

I’d like to say a good word for boredom. It needs the good words. The emotional state has an appalling reputation. We think it’s the sad state someone’s in when they can’t find anything interesting. It’s not. It’s the state in which we are so desperate for engagement that anything is interesting enough.

And that isn’t a bad thing! Finding something interesting enough is a precursor to noticing something curious. And curiosity is a precursor to discovery. And discovery is a precursor to seeing a fuller richness of the world.

Think of being stuck in a waiting room, deprived of reading materials or a phone to play with or much of anything to do. But there is a clock. Your classic analog-face clock. Its long minute hand sweeps out the full 360 degrees of the circle once every hour, 24 times a day. Its short hour hand sweeps out that same arc every twelve hours, only twice a day. Why is the big unit of time marked with the short hand? Good question, I don’t know. Probably, ultimately, because it changes so much less than the minute hand that it doesn’t need the attention of length drawn to it.

But let our waiting mathematician get a little more bored, and think more about the clock. The hour and minute hand must sometimes point in the same direction. They do at 12:00 by the clock, for example. And they will at … a little bit past 1:00, and a little more past 2:00, and a good while after 9:00, and so on. How many times during the day will they point the same direction?

Well, one easy way to do this is to work out how long it takes the hands, once they’ve met, to meet up again. Presumably we don’t want to wait the whole hour-and-some-more-time for it. But how long is that? Well, we know the hands start out pointing the same direction at 12:00. The first time after that will be after 1:00. At exactly 1:00 the hour hand is 30 degrees clockwise of the minute hand. The minute hand will need five minutes to catch up to that. In those five minutes the hour hand will have moved another 2.5 degrees clockwise. The minute hand needs about four-tenths of a minute to catch up to that. In that time the hour hand moves — OK, we’re starting to see why Zeno was not an idiot. He never was.

But we have this roughly worked out. It’s about one hour, five and a half minutes between one time the hands meet and the next. In the course of twelve hours there’ll be time for them to meet up … oh, of course, eleven times. Over the course of the day they’ll meet up 22 times and we can get into a fight over whether midnight counts as part of today, tomorrow, or both days, or neither. (The answer: pretend the day starts at 12:01.)

Hold on, though. How do we know that the time between the hands meeting up at 12:00 and the one at about 1:05 is the same as the time between the hands meeting up near 1:05 and the next one, sometime a little after 2:10? Or between that one and the one at a little past 3:15? What grounds do we have for saying this one interval is a fair representation of them all?

We can argue that it should be fairly enough. Imagine that all the markings were washed off the clock. It’s just two hands sweeping around in circles, one relatively fast, one relatively slow, forever. Give the clockface a spin. When the hands come together again rotate the clock so those two hands are vertical, the “12:00” position. Is this actually 12:00? … Well, we’ve got a one-in-eleven chance it is. It might be a little past 1:05; it might be that time something past 6:30. The movement of the clock hands gives no hint what time it really is.

And that is why we’re justified taking this one interval as representative of them all. The rate at which the hands move, relative to each other, doesn’t depend on what the clock face behind it says. The rate is, if the clock isn’t broken, always the same. So we can use information about one special case that happens to be easy to work out to handle all the cases.

That’s the mathematics term for this essay. We can study the one specific case without loss of generality, or as it’s inevitably abbreviated, wlog. This is the trick of studying something possibly complicated, possibly abstract, by looking for a representative case. That representative case may tell us everything we need to know, at least about this particular problem. Generality means what you might figure from the ordinary English meaning of it: it means this answer holds in general, as opposed to in this specific instance.

Some thought has to go in to choosing the representative case. We have to pick something that doesn’t, somehow, miss out on a class of problems we would want to solve. We mustn’t lose the generality. And it’s an easy mistake to make, especially as a mathematics student first venturing into more abstract waters. I remember coming up against that often when trying to prove properties of infinitely long series. It’s so hard to reason something about a bunch of numbers whose identities I have no idea about; why can’t I just use the sequence, oh, 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, et cetera and let that be good enough? Maybe 1/1, 1/4, 1/9, 1/16, et cetera for a second test, just in case? It’s because it takes time to learn how to safely handle infinities.

It’s still worth doing. Few of us are good at manipulating things in the abstract. We have to spend more mental energy imagining the thing rather than asking the questions we want of it. Reducing that abstraction — even if it’s just a little bit, changing, say, from “an infinitely-differentiable function” to “a polynomial of high enough degree” — can rescue us. We can try out things we’re confident we understand, and derive from it things we don’t know.

I can’t say that a bored person observing a clock would deduce all this. Parts of it, certainly. Maybe all, if she thought long enough. I believe it’s worth noticing and thinking of these kinds of things. And it’s why I believe it’s fine to be bored sometimes.