For a maths teacher, 'The Mystery Calculator' is a potent conceit that piques students' interest and that — when used carefully[2] of course — levers and encourages strong, mathematically mature thinking. After playing the trick out on/with students, it is demystified carefully, and collectively, before students use their newfound knowledge and understanding creatively in devising a different trick, based on the same principles. (A ppt version of the cards, one card per slide, can be downloaded here.)

**The Trick**

- Ask someone to choose a number from any of the six cards.
- Show them each card in turn and ask them if their number appears on it.
- Add the numbers in the top left-hand corner of each card that contains their number.
- The total is their number.

**The How / Why**

The number 1 in binary is (

**1**x 2⁰) → (1)

_{10}= (1)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 1

**appears**on the 1st card only.

The number 2 in binary is 10... (

**1**x 2¹) + (

**0**x 2⁰) → (2)

_{10}= (10)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 2

**appears**on the 2nd card, but

**does not appear**on the 1st or any other.

The number 3 in binary is 11... (

**1**x 2¹) + (

**1**x 2⁰) → (3)

_{10}= (11)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 3

**appears**on the first 2 cards, but

**does not appear**on others.

The number 4 in binary is 100... (

**1**x 2²) + (

**0**x 2¹) + (

**0**x 2⁰) → (4)

_{10}= (100)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 4

**appears**on the 3rd card but

**does not appear**on the 1st or 2nd, or any other.

The number 5 in binary is 101... (

**1**x 2²) + (

**0**x 2¹) + (

**1**x 2⁰) → (5)

_{10}= (101)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 5

**appears**on the 1st and 3rd cards, but

**does not appear**on the 2nd, or any other.

The number 6 in binary is 110... (

**1**x 2²) + (

**1**x 2¹) + (

**0**x 2⁰) → (6)

_{10}= (110)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 6

**appears**on 2nd and 3rd cards but

**does not appear**on the 1st, or any other.

The number 7 in binary is 111... (

**1**x 2²) + (

**1**x 2¹) + (

**1**x 2⁰) → (7)

_{10}= (111)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 7

**appears**on on 1st, 2nd and 3rd cards, but

**does not appear**on any other.

⋮

The number 41 in binary is 101001... (

**1**x 2⁵) + (

**0**x 2⁴) + (

**1**x 2³) + (

**0**x 2²) + (

**0**x 2¹) + (

**1**x 2⁰) → (41)

_{10}= (101001)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 41

**appears**on the 1st, 4th and 6th cards but

**does not appear**on the 2nd, 3rd or 5th.

⋮

The number 62 in binary is 111110... (

**1**x 2⁵) + (

**1**x 2⁴) + (

**1**x 2³) + (

**1**x 2²) + (

**1**x 2¹) + (

**0**x 2⁰) → (62)

_{10}= (111110)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 62

**appears**on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th cards, but

**does not appear**on the 1st.

The number 63 in binary is 111111... (

**1**x 2⁵) + (

**1**x 2⁴) + (

**1**x 2³) + (

**1**x 2²) + (

**1**x 2¹) + (

**1**x 2⁰) → (63)

_{10}= (111111)

_{2 }→ Hence the number 63

**appears**on all six cards.

**Possible Teaching Approaches**

- What do you notice about the numbers on each card?
- Do these patterns matter — what could we do to see if they do?
- Can we have a number larger than 63 on any of the cards?
- What about all of the other numbers on the cards — can they be chosen randomly?
- What number would appear on all cards if there were four, five, seven, ten, ... cards?
- Does the number in the top left-hand corner have to be
*there*? - Are there any constraints to the numbers we place on the cards?
- Would a similar trick in another base, maybe base-3, be more
*magical*? - How high can we count in binary on our fingers? (Watch this Ted-Ed video from James Tanton.)

**Notes & (Select) Links:**

[1] See here for an example, or here.

[2] See 'When Magic Fails in Mathematics,' by Junaid Mubeen.

[3] See this by Katie Steckles in The Aperiodical, 'On Disreputable numbers'.

For other Christmathsy problems to consider with students, try the 'Santamaths' problem, the '12 Days of Christmas' problem, see this selection from @mathsjem, and have a look at my 'xmaths card'.

[2] See 'When Magic Fails in Mathematics,' by Junaid Mubeen.

[3] See this by Katie Steckles in The Aperiodical, 'On Disreputable numbers'.

For other Christmathsy problems to consider with students, try the 'Santamaths' problem, the '12 Days of Christmas' problem, see this selection from @mathsjem, and have a look at my 'xmaths card'.

Thank you for sharing such great insights. I love the fact that the blog delves into the intriguing 'Mystery Calculator' trick, and highlights its potential as an engaging tool for teaching mathematics. Also, it’s amazing to see how you provide a detailed explanation of the trick, breaking down the binary representation of numbers on each card. The connection between binary representation and the appearance of numbers on specific cards is systematically explained, offering a valuable teaching tool for math educators.

ReplyDeleteThe suggested teaching approaches were clear and foster student engagement and critical thinking. The starting questions were relevant as they encourages students to analyze patterns, explore constraints, and even consider variations in other number bases. The inclusion of possible questions aims to stimulate thoughtful discussions and prompt students to create their own versions of the 'Mystery Calculator' trick. Overall, I love the fact that it offers a creative and interactive approach to teaching mathematical concepts.

Thank you!

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