Some numbers are odd:
1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 …
Some are even:
2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 …
And then there are the puzzling “eban” numbers:
2, 4, 6, 30, 32, 34, 36, 40 …
What number comes next? And why?
These are questions that Neil Sloane, a mathematician of Highland Park, N.J., loves to ask. Dr. Sloane is the founder of the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, a database of 362,765 (and counting) number sequences defined by a precise rule or property. Such as the prime numbers:
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 …
Or the Fibonacci numbers — every term (starting with the 3rd term) is the sum of the two preceding numbers:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 …
This year the OEIS, which has been praised as “the master index to mathematics” and “a mathematical equivalent to the FBI’s voluminous fingerprint files,” celebrates its 50th anniversary. The original collection, “A Handbook of Integer Sequences,” appeared in 1973 and contained 2,372 entries. In 1995, it became an “encyclopedia,” with 5,487 sequences and an additional author, Simon Plouffe, a mathematician in Quebec. A year later, the collection had doubled in size again, so Dr. Sloane put it on the internet.
“In a sense, every sequence is a puzzle,” Dr. Sloane said in a recent interview. He added that the puzzle aspect is incidental to the database’s main purpose: to organize all mathematical knowledge.
Sequences found in the wild — in mathematics, but also quantum physics, genetics, communications, astronomy and elsewhere — can be puzzling for numerous reasons. Looking up these entities in the OEIS, or adding them to the database, sometimes leads to enlightenment and discovery.
“It’s a source of unexpected results,” said Lara Pudwell, a mathematician at Valparaiso University in Indiana and a member of the OEIS Foundation’s board of trustees. Dr. Pudwell writes algorithms to solve counting problems. A few years ago, thus engaged, she entered into the OEIS search box a sequence that arose while studying numerical patterns:
2, 4, 12, 20, 38, 56, 88 …
The only result that popped up pertained to chemistry: specifically, to the periodic table and the atomic numbers of the alkaline earth metals. “I found this perplexing,” Dr. Pudwell said. She consulted with chemists and soon “realized there were interesting chemical structures to work with to explain the connection.”
- What Number Comes Next? Ask the Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences.
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