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simont

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[personal profile] simont Wed 2014-02-19 10:52
Unsolved problem

Here's a mathematical sort of question that occurred to me last year. I've been pondering it off and on ever since, but not reached any useful conclusions; and I just came across my file of notes on it, and thought perhaps I should post it somewhere for other people to ponder as well.

Let m and n be positive integers. Suppose you have m sticks of length n, and you want to turn them into n sticks of length m, by cutting them into pieces and gluing the pieces back together. And the tricky bit is that you want to do this in a way that maximises the length of the shortest fragment involved in the dissection.

One obvious approach is to glue all your sticks end-to-end into one long stick of length mn, then cut that into n equal pieces. If you do that, the shortest fragment will have a length equal to gcd(m,n). So that's a lower bound on the solution in general, and in some cases (e.g. m=3, n=2) it really will be the best you can do.

But gcd(m,n) is not always the best you can do. For example, consider m=6 and n=5. The obvious gcd solution gives a shortest fragment of 1, but actually this case has a solution with shortest fragment 2: cut each of the six 5-sticks into pieces of length 2 and 3, then reassemble as three lots of 3+3 and two lots of 2+2+2. (In fact this was the case that first brought the problem to my attention.)

I also know that the best solution will not necessarily involve fragments of integer length. For example, consider m=5 and n=7. If you constrain yourself to only use integer-length fragments, then you can't make the shortest fragment any longer than 1. (If you try to make it 2, then you have no option but to cut up each 7-stick as 2+2+3, but then you have ten 2s and five 3s, out of which you can't make the seven 5s you need without bisecting a 2.) But with fractional fragment lengths you can improve on a shortest fragment of 1, by cutting up three 7-sticks as (8/3 + 8/3 + 5/3) and the other two as (7/3 + 7/3 + 7/3), then reassembling as six lots of (8/3 + 7/3) and one (5/3 + 5/3 + 5/3). So now your shortest fragment is one and two-thirds units long.

So, does anyone have thoughts? Other than the above examples, I haven't managed very many myself. I haven't even come up with a sensible computer search algorithm to reliably determine the best answer for a given m,n pair – so, in particular, I don't even know that 5/3 is the best answer for the example above, only that it's the best answer I know of. I have a vague idea that the best answer generally seems to involve at least one stick (on either the source or the destination side) being cut into equal-length fragments, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that wasn't true in all cases.

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