Chips for Pythagoras

by Milla Inglis

‘Why do all those birds fly together?’ I gazed through the window trying to avoid finishing dinner. I didn’t care about the birds, but having eaten sausages and mash, sprouts seemed superfluous.

‘It’s called flocking, boy,’ Uncle Carthage replied. ‘And they do it for safety. Look. It’s like the sprouts on your plate. If you clump them together it’s difficult to catch one.’

Obeying instructions I had no trouble spearing one with my fork.

‘That’s not a fair test, boy. The sprouts don’t want to be spiked so they fly together. If I move the plate around you’ll find it more difficult to catch one.’

He whirled the plate somehow keeping the vegetables in a flock while I frantically tried stabbing.

‘I can’t catch them.’

‘See boy, you’re the falcon watching the birds from above, waiting for dinner. You can’t snatch one among a moving crowd, so they’re safer like that.’ Uncle Carthage rarely said much but his prodigious eyebrows were raised, smiling at me.

‘And Uncle Carthage, why is the moon sometimes like a banana?’ I’d managed the sprouts but knew skinny rice pudding was coming.

‘The moon is round like this blueberry, and when the sun is here,’ he seized a large grapefruit, ‘and the Earth here, where I’ve put this plum, then light from the grapefruit reflects off the blueberry and you, on the plum, see it.’

‘But sometimes it’s a banana.’

‘Well, the plum moves round the grapefruit and gets in the way of the light so you only see part of the blueberry. Like this. The invisible bit is the plum’s shadow.’

Next day I asked, ‘Uncle Carthage? Who is Pythagoras?’

‘A Greek mathematician, boy. He died centuries ago. Famous for his theorem, which no doubt you know about.’

‘The one about triangles and squares, with an impossible proof?’

‘Not impossible at all, boy. Look, I’ll show you. Find three chips from your plate and arrange them in a triangle so two of them form a right angle. Keep your fish fingers to one side. The third must fit properly. That one won’t do. Yes, that’s better. Now this is important. You must find chips to match those in the triangle exactly so that you form squares on all three sides.’

‘But I haven’t enough chips that fit.’

‘Have some of mine, then. Mathematicians must be precise. That one’s too bent. Your chips must be straight or it won’t work.’

‘I don’t think my plate is big enough to make a square on the long side.’

‘It’s called the hypotenuse, boy. Well, use the tray then. Proper investigations must never be hampered by faulty equipment. Now here comes the tricky bit. You have to put your peas into the squares so they are close together but not on top of each other. No spaces in between.’

I spooned the peas into the squares with the careful devotion of an investigating scientist, pushing them into the corners, ensuring they covered the allotted space and aligning the chips with precision. Uncle Carthage inspected my work and nodded.

‘Good. Now the peas in each square will be proportional to its area, so you have to count them, and record your results. Traditionally we use paper and pencil for that,’ he said, producing a notebook from his pocket.

‘There are thirty-six in the small square, sixty-two in the middle one and ninety-nine in the biggest.’

‘Splendid. It’s also conventional to repeat your observations three times, and take an average, just in case you’ve made a mistake. But not today because your dinner’s getting cold.’

Milla Inglis lives in East Yorkshire and likes reading daft stuff.

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  1. #1 by John Ritchie on November 16, 2011 - 5:30 pm

    I cannot believe no-one else has commented on this!

    This is funny, clever and very entertaining.

    More please.

    Best

    John

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