The Midpoint From 1 to 9 is…3?

For the past 3 years, the Berkeley Chess School has done a weekly lesson in our backyard. About 15 kids attend. They are mostly 2nd and 5th graders because we know the families through our kids.

I walk home from school with all the kids on chess day. I usually throw out a math question or riddle and by now the kids just ask for them on our strolls. Lately, the questions deal with rates, percentages/fractions, exponents/roots, or some basic number play stuff (“How do you know if a number is divisible by 9?”)

Some examples:

  • Start with $100. If you earn 10% then lose 10%, how much money do you have?

  • What’s larger 3⁴ or 4³ and similar questions?

  • If you travel 5 miles in 12 minutes, how fast are you going?[I haven’t dropped this one on them: “If I drive around a one-mile track and average 30 mph for the first lap, how fast do I have to drive the second lap to average 60 mph for both laps combined?” (Solution)]

  • If you have 5 kids on your team and only 4 kids start how many possible starting lineups are there?

  • If you lose 25%, how much do you have to make to get back to even?[I like that one because it’s a useful elasticity idea. If X is the loss percentage, you need to earn back X/(1-X).

    If you are selling lemonade and you cut your price by 20%, you need to sell 25% more cups to be revenue-neutral.]

I started giving these questions because, well it’s just play. Riddles are inherently satisfying. But I’m also conscious of imparting some durable concepts. It’s not quite as deliberate as hiding the dog’s pill in the peanut butter but there’s some overlap. Honestly, the main motivation is keeping the kids who aren’t into sports engaged. There’s about 40 minutes between the kids getting to my house and the start of chess. The 2nd graders usually play soccer and the 5th graders hoop it up. A few kids aren’t into either but they gravitate to the riddles (my boys just wanna play sports and my 5th grader, Zak, with sass tells his friends “This is the stuff I deal with all the time”).

Lately, I’ve been doing more exponent stuff because I know they aren’t doing that yet in 5th grade but it’s reachable for them. Zak is taking the online Pre-Algebra I course on Art of Problem Solving which is comprised of 7 chapters. He just wrapped chapter 2 which is all about exponents so that’s been top-of-mind for coming up with the questions.

The challenge question to end the chapter was to solve for the 2 possible values of X (see below). But keep in mind, they haven’t learned how to compute square roots or any other kind of roots. You can do this without any involved computations and without roots. You can find the solution at the end of the post.

Find the 2 possible values of x:

Anyway, I didn’t give the kids that question but by this past week, they understood the basics of computing a simple exponent or taking a square root. So I took a stab at base 10 logarithms. I just explained it as the power you need to raise 10 to get to the target number.

“So if our target is 100, what do you have to raise 10 to? How about a target of 1,000?”

They had no trouble with this. So I explained how both the Richter and decibel scales were log scales that compressed a wide range into a smaller ruler. A 6 on the Richter is not twice the energy of a 3 but 1000x more energy. Every integer increase in the scale is just a higher order of magnitude.

The most pleasant thing happened. The kids that gravitated to this stuff were stoked. As it it settled in their brains they were all Keanu Reeves “Whoa, that’s so cool”.

I texted one of the parents:

Putting aside the pure joy of watching a kid unlock, exponents and logs are fundamentally important operations like adding and subtracting. Our first formal introduction to them outside a math class is usually science (exponential growth/decay) but more prosaic to this audience is the topic of investing, specifically the idea of compound growth. It’s an idea you’d love to see people internalize as young as possible.

Typically when someone (and I’ve done this too) writes about compounding they reference Einstein’s 8th Wonder of the World quote or talk about how our minds think linearly and find exponential growth unintuitive. [This was a common conversation at the start of the COVID pandemic with VCs patting themselves on the back for lateral thinking about how coefficients of virality applied to…the domain where exponential growth is usually people’s first contact with the topic. Like twisting a eulogy into a chance to talk about yourself. I’m not even mad, it’s the whole wheel of cheese].

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Grant Sanderson, the mathematician behind the 3Blue1Brown YouTube channel. This is from his appearance on

Dwarkesh Patel

excellent Lunar Society Podcast:

Have you come across those studies where anthropologists interview tribes of people that are removed enough from normal society that they don’t have the level of numeracy that you or I do? But there’s some notion of counting. You have one coconut or nine coconuts like you have a sense of that. But if you ask what number is halfway between one and nine, those groups will answer three whereas you or I or people in our world would probably answer five and because we think on this very linear scale.

It’s interesting that evidently the natural way to think about things is logarithmically, which kind of makes sense. The social dynamics of as you go from solitude to a group of 10 people to a group of 100 people have roughly equal steps in increasing complexity more so than if you go from 1 to 51 to 102 and I wonder if it’s it’s the case that by adding numeracy in some senses we’ve also like lost some numeracy or lost some intuition in others, where now if you ask middle school teachers what’s a difficult topic to teacher for students to understand they’re like logarithms. But that should be deep in our bones right so somehow it got unlearned

What a cheeky observation. Gives a second entendre to the expression “natural log”.

2 ways I came up with to solve the AoPS question

Method 1:

x could also be -243 since it’s being raised to an even power.

Method 2:

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