After years of experiments, you’ve finally created the pets of the future – nano-rabbits! They’re tiny, they’re fuzzy … and they multiply faster than the eye can see. But a rival lab has sabotaged you, threatening the survival of your new friends. Can you figure out how to avert this hare-raising catastrophe? Alex Gendler shows how.
After years of experiments, you’ve finally created the pets of the future– nano-rabbits! They’re tiny, they’re fuzzy… and they multiply faster than the eye can see.
In your lab there are 36 habitat cells, arranged in an inverted pyramid, with 8 cells in the top row. The first has one rabbit, the second has two, and so on, with eight rabbits in the last one. The other rows of cells are empty… for now. The rabbits are hermaphroditic, and each rabbit in a given cell will breed once with every rabbit in the horizontally adjacent cells, producing exactly one offspring each time. The newborn rabbits will drop into the cell directly below the two cells of its parents, and within minutes will mature and reproduce in turn. Each cell can hold 10^80 nano-rabbits – that’s a 1 followed by 80 zeros – before they break free and overrun the world. Your calculations have given you a 46-digit number for the count of rabbits in the bottom cell– plenty of room to spare.
But just as you pull the lever to start the experiment, your assistant runs in with terrible news. A rival lab has sabotaged your code so that all the zeros at the end of your results got cut off. That means you don’t actually know if the bottom cell will be able to hold all the rabbits – and the reproduction is already underway! To make matters worse, your devices and calculators are all malfunctioning, so you only have a few minutes to work it out by hand. How many trailing zeros should there be at the end of the count of rabbits in the bottom habitat? And do you need to pull the emergency shut-down lever?
There isn’t enough time to calculate the exact number of rabbits in the final cell. The good news is we don’t need to. All we need to figure out is how many trailing zeros it has.
But how can we know how many trailing zeros a number has without calculating the number itself? What we do know is that we arrive at the number of rabbits in the bottom cell through a process of multiplication – literally. The number of rabbits in each cell is the product of the number of rabbits in each of the two cells above it. And there are only two ways to get numbers with trailing zeros through multiplication: either multiplying a number ending in 5 by any even number, or by multiplying numbers that have trailing zeroes themselves.
Let’s calculate the number of rabbits in the second row and see what patterns emerge. Two of the numbers have trailing zeros – 20 rabbits in the fourth cell and 30 in the fifth cell. But there are no numbers ending in 5. And since the only way to get a number ending in 5 through multiplication is by starting with a number ending in 5, there won’t be any more down the line either. That means we only need to worry about the numbers that have trailing zeros themselves. And a neat trick to figure out the amount of trailing zeros in a product is to count and add the trailing zeros in each of the factors – for example, 10 x 100 = 1,000.
So let’s take the numbers in the fourth and fifth cells and multiply down from there. 20 and 30 each have one zero, so the product of both cells will have two trailing zeros, while the product of either cell and an adjacent non-zero-ending cell will have only one. When we continue all the way down, we end up with 35 zeros in the bottom cell. And if you’re not too stressed about the potential nano-rabbit apocalypse, you might notice that counting the zeros this way forms part of Pascal’s triangle.
Adding those 35 zeros to the 46 digit number we had before yields an 81 digit number – too big for the habitat to contain! You rush over and pull the emergency switch just as the seventh generation of rabbits was about to mature – hare-raisingly close to disaster.