Sunday, October 10, 2021

I have a book out on muffins (you prob already know that)

Lance: How come you haven't blogged on your muffin book? You've blogged about two books by Harry Lewis (see here and here) one book by the lesswrong community (see here), and you even did a mashup of a post by two different Scott A's (see here),  but not on your own work.

Bill: I thought I did a post on my muffin book.

Lance: No. You have blogged about the muffin problem, and sometimes you mention either the book or the problem in passing, but you haven't had a post that says

HEY, I wrote a book!

And this is all the more strange since you asked me to have the book on our blog page. 

Bill: (Searches blog with keyword muffin and finds no ref to muffin book). Well pierce my ears and call be drafty! I have not posted on the muffin book! Do you recall my thoughts on when to tell people you are working on a book?

Lance: No

Bill:  I had a college roommate who was an aspiring science fiction writer who told me there are two kinds of people: Those who talk about writing a book, and those who write a book. I have adapted this to:

Do not tell people you are writing a book until you are picking out the cover art.

Lance: I posted about my book when I hadn't even decided on the title. But your cover art is picked out (see here).  And, by the way, its very nice, though it makes me hungry. So I think you can begin talking about the book.

Bill: Indeed! I will!


Hey I have a book! (See here to buy it on amazon.) 

Title: Mathematical Muffin Morsels: Nobody Wants a Small Piece

by Gasarch, Metz, Prinz, Smolyak

(The other authors were undergraduates when we wrote the book. Prinz and Smolyak are now grad students in CS, Metz is in Finance.) 


Martin Gardner wrote a Mathematics Recreational column for Scientific American for many years, starting in 1956 and ending in the early 1980s. For many STEM people of my generation (Using my fake birthday of Oct 1, 1960, I am 62 years old) Martin Gardner's columns were both an inspiration and an early exposure to mathematics. His columns also made the line between Mathematical Recreation and so-called serious mathematics thin or nonexistent. (See here for a review of Martin Gardner in the 21st century, a book about the kind of math Gardner wrote of. The book makes a mockery of the distinction between recreational and serious mathematics.) He passed away in 2010 at the age of 95.

There is a gathering in his honor that is hold roughly every 2 years, called Gathering For Gardner. (It was cancelled in Spring 2020 and Spring 2021 because of COVID- though its in Atlanta where the CDC is, so they could have had it as an experiment and told the CDC the results). You have to be invited to goto it. I got an invite for 2016 from my contact at World Scientific who published my previous book, Problems with a Point: Exploring Math and Computer Science co-authored with Clyde Kruskal  (I had two blogs on it, here and here, and you can buy it on amazon here.) I did three posts on G4G-2016 (herehere, and here).

Aside from seeing some great talks that I understood and liked, I also picked up a pamphlet titled:

The Julia Robinson Math Festival

A Sample of Mathematical Puzzles

Compiled By Nancy Blackman

One of the problems, credited to Alan Frank, was

How can you divide and distribute 5 muffins for 3 students so that everyone gets 5/3 and the smallest piece is as big as possible?

They had some other values for muffins and students as well. 

I solved the (5,3) problem and the other ones as well. That was fun. 

When I got home I began looking at the problem for m muffins and s students. I let f(m,s) be the biggest smallest piece possible for giving out m muffins to s students. I proved a general theorem, called the Floor-Ceiling theorem, that always gives an upper bound, FC(m,s) on f(m,s). I worked out formulas for 

f(m,1) (trivial), 

f(m,2) (trivial), 

f(m,3) (its always FC(m,3),

 f(m,4) (its always FC(m,4)).

While working on f(m,5) I found that  f(m,5) was always FC(m,5) EXCEPT for m=11. So what's up with f(11,5)?  

By the Floor Ceiling theorem f(11,5) \le 11/25. We (at that point several ugrads and HS students had joined the project)  were unable to find a protocol that would show f(11,5)\ge 11/25. Personally I thought there WAS such an protocol but perhaps it was more complicated than the ones we had found (We were finding them by hand using some easy linear algebra.) Perhaps a computer program was needed. We did find a protocol for f(11,5)\ge 13/30, which surely was not optimal. 

While on an Amtrak I began working out the following train of thought: The protocol for f(11,5)\le 11/25 MUST have 

(1) every muffin cut into two pieces,

(2) 3 students get 4 pieces, 

(3) 2 students get 5 pieces. 

While working on getting a protocol for f(11,5)\le 11/25 with these properties I found that... there could be no such protocol! Then by reworking what I did I found that f(11,5)\le 13/30. So it was done! and we had a new technique, which we call The Half Method. To see the full proof see my slides here

The story above is typical: We get f(m,k) for all 1\le k\le SOMETHING, we get stuck, and then we find ANOTHER technique to show upper bounds (which in this case are limits on how well we can do). This happened about 8 times depending on how you count.  After a while we realized that this could not just be an article, this was a book! World Scienfiic agreed to publish it, and its out now.

Misc Notes

1) I got a conference paper out of it, in the Fun with Algorithms Conference, with some of the co-authors on the book, and some other people. here is the conf paper.

2) Early on we realized that f(m,s) = (m/s)f(s,m) so we only had to look at the m>s case.

3) The fact that f(m,s) exists and is rational is not obvious, but is true. In fact, f(m,s) can be found by a mixed-int program. 

4) Late on in the process I found that there was a by-invite-only math newsgroup that had discussed the problem, and in fact was where Alan Frank first posted it. I obtained their materials and found that they had already shown f(m,s)=(m/s)f(s,m) and also that the answer is always rational and exists. Aside from that our results did not overlap.

5) Even later in the process Scott Huddleston emailed me (out of the blue) that he had a program that solved the muffin problem quickly. I was skeptical at first, but he did indeed have a whole new way to look at the problem and his code was very fast (I had Jacob Prinz, one of the co-authors on the book, recode it). Later Richard Chatwin (see here) seems to have proven that Scott's method always works. The approach of Scott and Richard is where to go if you want to do serious further research on Muffins. My book is where you want to go if you want to learn some easy and fun math (a HS student could read it). 

6) I co-authored a column with Scott H, Erik Metz, Jacob Prinz on Muffins, featuring his technique, in Lane's complexity column, here.

7) I had an REU student, Stephanie Warman, write a muffin package based on the book.

8) I gave a talk an invited talk on The Muffin Problem  at a Joint AMS-MAA meeting. 

9) I gave a talk at Gathering for Gardner 2018 on The Muffin Problem. 

10) I often give talks on it to groups of High School students.

11) When I teach Discrete Math Honors I talk about it and assign problems on it- it really is part of the course. As such its a good way to reinforce the pigeon hole principle. 

12) I contacted Alan Frank about my work. We arranged to meet at an MIT combinatorics seminar where I was to give a talk on muffins. He brought 11 muffins, with 1 cut (1/2,1/2), 2 cut (14/30,16/30),

and 8 cut (13/30,17/30) so that the 11 of us could each get 11/5 with smallest piece 13/30. 

13) Coda: 

Why did I keep working on this problem?  I kept working on it because I kept hitting barriers and (with co-authors) breaking them with new techniques that were interesting.  If early on a barrier was not breakable then I would have stopped. If (say) Floor-ceiling solved everything than I might have gotten a paper out of  this, but surely not a book.

Lesson for all of us: look around you! Its not clear what is going to inspire a project!

Lasting effect: I am reluctant to throw out old math magazines and pamphlets since you never know when one will lead to a book.


  1. Are there interesting asymptotic questions? For example, given that the answer is always rational, is the denominator of the answer bounded by a polynomial in m,s?

    1. As far as I know, its open- though the paper of Richard Chatwin that I point to above may have resolved it. I suspect the answer is YES its bounded by a poly in m,s.

    2. My paper doesn't explicitly address this question but it's pretty straightforward to show that the denominator is bounded by 2ms.