Things are a bit quiet in climate blogging - so with a weekend coming I'll honor my ancient promise of diverting to some recreational math. I saw a few weeks ago a mention at Lucia's of the old twelve coin problem. Twelve coins, one of which is fake and of different weight to the others, and to be found with three weighings on a balance (Update: the usual spec, as here, is that you also have to say whether it is heavier or lighter). This first came to prominence in WWII, when it was said to have become a distraction to the war effort in places like Bletchley Park, leading to suspicions that it had been planted by the Germans. A suggested counter was for the RAF to drop it on Germany.
I first encountered it when I started University; it was posed in circumstances where I was expected to be able to solve it, and I was embarrassed. A year later, I went to a lecture on information theory (newish in those days). I was struck by the proposition, helpful in later years, that the information in a result was a function of prior uncertainty. So that is the clue - each weighing should be arranged so each of 3 outcomes was as near equally probable as could be managed, maximising prior uncertainty. Then I could solve it easily, and also versions with more coins.
The basic constraint is that in N weighings there are 3N possible outcomes, while with n coins, there are 2n situations to resolve, since only once coin is false, and could be heavy or light. So for 12 coins, there are 24 possibilities and 27 outcomes of 3 weighings, so it is tight but possible. An alternative to the equiprobable outcome method is a requirement that each weighing should be so that each outcome was resolvable with the remaining weighings.
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