The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 20 Apr 2016

The sage and the seven horses

A classic puzzle of mathematics goes like this:

A father dies and his will states that his elder daughter should receive half his horses, the son should receive one-quarter of the horses, and the younger daughter should receive one-eighth of the horses. Unfortunately, there are seven horses. The siblings are arguing about how to divide the seven horses when a passing sage hears them. The siblings beg the sage for help. The sage donates his own horse to the estate, which now has eight. It is now easy to portion out the half, quarter, and eighth shares, and having done so, the sage's horse is unaccounted for. The three heirs return the surplus horse to the sage, who rides off, leaving the matter settled fairly.

(The puzzle is, what just happened?)

It's not hard to come up with variations on this. For example, picking three fractions at random, suppose the will says that the eldest child receives half the horses, the middle child receives one-fifth, and the youngest receives one-seventh. But the estate has only 59 horses and an argument ensues. All that is required for the sage to solve the problem is to lend the estate eleven horses. There are now 70, and after taking out the three bequests, !!70 - 35 - 14 - 10 = 11!! horses remain and the estate settles its debt to the sage.

But here's a variation I've never seen before. This time there are 13 horses and the will says that the three children should receive shares of !!\frac12, \frac13,!! and !!\frac14!!. respectively. Now the problem seems impossible, because !!\frac12 + \frac13 + \frac14 \gt 1!!. But the sage is equal to the challenge! She leaps into the saddle of one of the horses and rides out of sight before the astonished heirs can react. After a day of searching the heirs write off the lost horse and proceed with executing the will. There are now only 12 horses, and the eldest takes half, or six, while the middle sibling takes one-third, or 4. The youngest heir should get three, but only two remain. She has just opened her mouth to complain at her unfair treatment when the sage rides up from nowhere and hands her the reins to her last horse.

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