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Plato And The Nines


Both in ancient and in modern times the number nine has been considered to possess peculiarly mystic qualities. We know, for instance, that there were nine Muses, nine rivers of Hades, and that Vulcan was nine days falling down from heaven. Then it has been confidently held that nine tailors make a man; while we know that there are nine planets, nine days' wonders, and that a cat has nine lives—and sometimes nine tails.

Most people are acquainted with some of the curious properties of the number nine in ordinary arithmetic. For example, write down a number containing as many figures as you like, add these figures together, and deduct the sum from the first number. Now, the sum of the figures in this new number will always be a multiple of nine.

There was once a worthy man at Athens who was not only a cranky arithmetician, but also a mystic. He was deeply convinced of the magic properties of the number nine, and was perpetually strolling out to the groves of Academia to bother poor old Plato with his nonsensical ideas about what he called his "lucky number." But Plato devised a way of getting rid of him. When the seer one day proposed to inflict on him a lengthy disquisition on his favourite topic, the philosopher cut him short with the remark, "Look here, old chappie" (that is the nearest translation of the original Greek term of familiarity): "when you can bring me the solution of this little mystery of the three nines I shall be happy to listen to your treatise, and, in fact, record it on my phonograph for the benefit of posterity."

Plato then showed, in the manner depicted in our illustration, that three nines may be arranged so as to represent the number eleven, by putting them into the form of a fraction. The puzzle he then propounded was so to arrange the three nines that they will represent the number twenty.

It is recorded of the old crank that, after working hard at the problem for nine years, he one day, at nine o'clock on the morning of the ninth day of the ninth month, fell down nine steps, knocked out nine teeth, and expired in nine minutes. It will be remembered that nine was his lucky number. It was evidently also Plato's.

In solving the above little puzzle, only the most elementary arithmetical signs are necessary. Though the answer is absurdly simple when you see it, many readers will have no little difficulty in discovering it. Take your pencil and see if you can arrange the three nines to represent twenty.

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