Math Circle Session 4: Ciphers

Today saw the fourth session of our math circle. Attendance was down, and there was a sombre mood, due to a tragic event to hit the the school community today.

We went ahead with the three children who came, looking at ciphers. Following the guidance and resources in Rozhkovskaya’s book, we looked at the following activities:

  • We started with some plaintext words and one ciphertext word, and the kids very quickly spotted, without any help, which plaintext word corresponded to the ciphertext word, on the basis that both had a double letter in a certain place and they had the same number of symbols.
  • We showed how a coding wheel can be used to produce a Caesar shift cipher, and got them to actually build such a wheel.
  • We queried how many possible ciphers could be constructed with such a wheel. Interestingly, this was not obvious to the children at first, and a common answer was “infinite”. On questioning, this is because they were considering all integer shifts, i.e. mapping the letter n to the letter n+k for some key k, and forgetting the modulo arithmetic in play, despite having the wheel in front of them.
  • We got them to produce coded messages to each other using the wheel, which they seemed to enjoy. Our initial plan was to have them pass the message and the key to the next child to decode. However, they immediately attempted to decode without they key by looking for patterns, so we didn’t stop this. One key pattern they spotted included the limited number of two letter words in English, allowing them to enumerate possible keys on two-letter words in the ciphertext. Another was the limited number of letters in the alphabet that can appear twice consecutively in an English word, again allowing for enumeration.

There’s a lot more that can be done with ciphers, and I expect we’ll continue this for another session.

Math Circle Session 3: Knots

Today saw the third session of the primary school math circle we’ve been running for kids in Year 2 to Year 6. (I was absent for Session 2, where my wife covered mathematical card tricks.)

Today we looked at knots, drawing inspiration from Rozhkovskaya’s book as well as Adams’ introduction to knot theory. In particular, we covered the following points:

  • (Medial) graph representations of knot projections, moving backward and forward between them (see
  • The importance of assigning an (under/over) decision to crossings
  • Getting the kids to think of their own ideas for what knot equivalence might mean (shape, size, rotation, deformation – of what type) etc.

The key innovation we used here, which I think really brought the session to life, was to get the kids actually physically making the knots using Wikkistix, wax-coated string which allowed them to make, break, and remake their knots.

The kids really ran with this, and made their own discoveries, in particular:

  • One child discovered that some knots corresponding to the graph K_3 could be manipulated to produce the unknot, some could not.
  • A child discovered that it is possible to produce two interconnected knots, forming a link. Another child came to the same conclusion from the graph representation.
  • Consider the graph with vertex set \{v_1,\ldots,v_n\} and edge set \{\{v_i,v_{i+1}\} | 1 \leq i \leq n-1\}\} \cup \{\{v_n,v_1\}\} (is there a name for these graphs?). One child completely independently found that for n even, this corresponds to a link of two knots, whereas for n odd, it corresponds to a single knot.

I certainly had a lot of fun this afternoon – I hope they did too!

Starting a Math Circle

I’ve been intrigued for a couple of years by the idea of math circles. Over Christmas I finally plucked up the courage to start one at a local primary school with my wife, a maths teacher. The school was happy, and recruited six pupils from Year 2 to Year 6 to attend.

Armed with a number of publications from the American Mathematical Society’s Mathematical Circles Library, our first task was to find a suitable topic for Session 1. Our primary goal was to find a topic that was clearly not everyday school maths, preferably as far away from the National Curriculum as possible, and ideally including practical activities.

In the end, we decided to look at Möbius strips. In the traditional of journal keeping for Mathematical Circles, I thought I would report the experience here in case anyone else wants to give it a go. In particular, we took the following approach:

  1. Make zero half-turn bands (loops) and colour the outside in one colour.  Then colour the inside in a different colour.
  2. Repeat with a one half-turn band. This caused some surprise when it became apparent that one colour coloured the whole band.
  3. Predict what would happen if you cut the zero half-turn band down the centre (prediction was universally that you’d get two zero half-turn bands). Try it.
  4. Now predict for the one half-turn band. Children were less sure about this case, but the most popular prediction was two half-turn bands. More surprise when it turned out to create a single four half-turn band. One child then went off on his own exploring what happened when you cut one of these four half-turn bands (two four half-turn bands).

By this time some of children were already off under their own steam, trying out their own experiments. This was great, but even with only six children and with two adults, I found it hard to pull together the outcomes of these experiments in any systematic way in real time.

Eventually we discovered together that:

  • If the initial number of half-turns is odd, cutting gives you one larger band with more half turns. (I was hoping we’d be able to quantify this, but it turns out to be very difficult to count the number of half-turns in a strip – even for me, let alone for the younger children!)
  • If the initial number of half-turns is even, cutting gives you two interlinked bands with the same number of half-turns.

This took up pretty much the whole 50mins we had for Session 1, though I did briefly try to show them an explanation of why this might be the case, following the diagrammatic representation in this document from the University of Surrey. I probably didn’t leave enough time to do this properly, and they were anyway keen on cutting and exploring by that time, so with hindsight I probably should have just left them to it.

What delighted me was the child who wanted to take home his Möbius strip to show his dad. So, not a bad start to the Math Circle. Let’s see how we get on!