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The Adventurous Snail


A simple version of the puzzle of the climbing snail is familiar to everybody. We were all taught it in the nursery, and it was apparently intended to inculcate the simple moral that we should never slip if we can help it. This is the popular story. A snail crawls up a pole 12 feet high, ascending 3 feet every day and slipping back 2 feet every night. How long does it take to get to the top? Of course, we are expected to say the answer is twelve days, because the creature makes an actual advance of 1 foot in every twenty-four hours. But the modern infant in arms is not taken in in this way. He says, correctly enough, that at the end of the ninth day the snail is 3 feet from the top, and therefore reaches the summit of its ambition on the tenth day, for it would cease to slip when it had got to the top.

Let us, however, consider the original story. Once upon a time two philosophers were walking in their garden, when one of them espied a highly respectable member of the Helix Aspersa family, a pioneer in mountaineering, in the act of making the perilous ascent of a wall 20 feet high. Judging by the trail, the gentleman calculated that the snail ascended 3 feet each day, sleeping and slipping back 2 feet every night.

"Pray tell me," said the philosopher to his friend, who was in the same line of business, "how long will it take Sir Snail to climb to the top of the wall and descend the other side? The top of the wall, as you know, has a sharp edge, so that when he gets there he will instantly begin to descend, putting precisely the same exertion into his daily climbing down as he did in his climbing up, and sleeping and slipping at night as before."

This is the true version of the puzzle, and my readers will perhaps be interested in working out the exact number of days. Of course, in a puzzle of this kind the day is always supposed to be equally divided into twelve hours' daytime and twelve hours' night.

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