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The Number Mysteries

Marcus du Sautoy

Manufacturers always wanted to make perfect spheres. In some cases vital, as in ball bearings or shotgun ammunition. Any variation likely to damage the machine or weapon. In 1783 a plumber in Bristol named William Watts, came up with a method. When molten iron is dropped from a height, it forms perfect spheres. Watts figured if you had a pool of cold water at the bottom of a very long drop the spheres would freeze their shape. wanted to try out his theory at his home, but realized needed a drop of more than 3 stories. So he simply added 3 stories to his house. Neighbours were a bit shocked, but it worked, and soon shot towers sprang up in every town. Watts' tower stayed in operation until 1968.

table tennis players need balls that are perfect spheres. Balls are made by gluing together two celluloid hemispheres. Not a great method since 95% failure rate. They identify the 'good' balls by firing them out of a gun. Any slight defect causes the ball to drift to the right or left. The perfect balls fly dead straight and are collected in a hopper.

More books on Sport

Males of a lizard in California come in 3 colors - orange blue and yellow. The orange ones are bigger and stronger and will attack the blue lizards, and the blue lizards attack the yellow lizards. But the yellow males look like females of the species, so the orange ones don't attack them, so they sneak in and mate with the real females.

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Rock paper scissors. Two art auction houses famously used it to settle a dispute over the right to auction some paintings. Sotherby's spent a lot of money hiring a group of analysts to come up with a winning strategy. Their verdict was that it's a random choice so didn't matter which you picked. Christie's just asked an 11yo girl what to do. She said "Everyone thinks you'll go with rock first, so they choose paper. So you should choose scissors to start." Christie's won.

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In Britain 10,000 people pick 1,2,3,4,5,6 as their lottery numbers.

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