Mathematical moonshine and chicken nuggets by @CambridgeMaths

Have you ever heard of the Chicken Nuggets Theorem? What about the Ham Sandwich Theorem, or the Midnight Formula?

Odds are, if you’re a secondary maths teacher, you will have come across the latter – because it is simply another name for that familiar stalwart of KS4 maths lessons, the Quadratic Formula (so ubiquitous, in fact, that it even makes an appearance on well-known children’s TV show Peppa Pig).

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The Midnight Formula is a translation of the German Mitternachtformel, so named because you should learn it by heart so well that even if someone wakes you at midnight you can still recite it half-asleep. In some Spanish-speaking countries, this same beautiful little rule is known as the fórmula del chicharronero, or the chicharronero’s formula, because the chicharronero is the person who sells snacks outside the school, and this formula is so pervasive that even they would remember it.

Mathematics is full of astonishingly-named ideas. You might never understand the concept behind monstrous moonshine, but what an elegant and unexpected turn of phrase – and it also uses the no-ghost theory (no, I’m not making this up). The Witch of Agnesi is an exotically-named curve with a simple reason behind it – it was mistranslated from the Italian versiera (sine curve), which sounds remarkably like avversiera (witch). I’m sure it was a coincidence that it was taken from reportedly the first surviving published mathematical work by a woman….

The field of fractals seems particularly ripe for beautiful names, with Douady rabbits, Koch snowflakes, the flowsnake, Menger sponges and the Minkowski sausage.

If you have a spare ten minutes, this list of quirkily named measurements (including the Sheppey, the shortest distance at which sheep remain picturesque; the New York second – the time taken between a light turning green and the cab behind you hitting its horn; and the donkey power, about a third of a horse power) could make an excellent starter for a maths lesson. Honourable mention also for the jiffy, an actual unit of time that always seems to be a hit in the maths classroom.

And what of that intriguingly-named Chicken Nugget Theorem? In the UK, a well-known takeaway outlet serves their nuggets in boxes of 6, 9 and 20. The eponymous theorem is a way of working out the largest number of nuggets that cannot be bought when constrained by these packet sizes – also called the Frobenius coin problem or the postage stamp problem.


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