Recently, we were at lunch and the kids asked for a challenge to entertain themselves. I had just read this Numberplay column and had Lora Saarnio's Four Coins Problem in mind.
The basic rules are to choose values for coins in a new system so that any value from 1 cent to 10 cents can be made with a single coin or with two coins.
For our older two, this was a great on-the-go puzzle without pen and paper. Later, we got into some extension questions that required more careful organization of their observations and attempts.
Mostly, I want to report some of the extension questions that we found interesting. The key point: this problem is very accessible (J3 could also work on a simplified version) but it is ripe for a Notice & Wonder discussion that will reveal increasingly complicated and challenging extensions.
Note: we used names of neighboring countries, but none of the claims in these scenarios are true (as far as we know).
In Burma, the president really likes the sequence 1, 2, 3. Is there a coin system we can suggest that includes coins with all three of those values?
We noticed that, for all the coin systems we created, there were always some values that were duplicated. What we mean is that there are two ways of using the coins to make that value. For example, in the coin system 1345, the following values can be made two ways:
4 = 4 = 1+3
5 = 5 = 1+4
6 = 3+3 = 1+5
8 = 4+4 = 3+5
Is there a coin system where all the values can be made only one way? If not, why not?
Two rival countries
Cambodia and Laos really love to compete with each other. As a result, they want coin systems where there aren't any shared coin values. For example, if Cambodia has a coin with value 5, then Laos can't have a coin value 5.
Is it possible? If not, what is the smallest overlap possible and how many possible coin systems achieve this smallest overlap?
Note: when we started this investigation, we had already designed a new system for Cambodia, so our starting question was whether there was a new system for Laos that wouldn't overlap this particular system for Cambodia, how much overlap was unavoidable, and then how to change both systems to minimize the overlap.
If we want to extend to amounts up to 20, how many coins are needed to have a compliant system (any value possible with only 1 or 2 coins)?
We haven't pursued this to a final answer, but the J's quickly recognized that, for any compliant coin system covering up to 10, they could create an 8 coin system that would cover up to 20. However, they also realized that four coins would be too few. This means that the minimum required to cover up to 20 is 5, 6, 7, or 8.
In the More Values! extension, we allow more than four coins in the system. The other way to relax the original constraints is to allow more than 2 coins to build a value. What can we achieve if we allow three coins at a time? Could we use fewer than four values in the system and still cover all amounts from 1 to 10? What about 1 to 20?