The Battery Problem – Math for my Mom

(After writing some posts directed at other mathematicians, here is one for everybody.)

I’ve never actually done this.

I was sifting through some old issues of Crux Mathematicorum last Friday. For those of you who don’t know, this is a wonderful magazine that contains tons of math questions generally like those you would see in a math contest or olympiad, and the difficulty ranges from elementary school to undergraduate. In the September 2009 issue, I stumbled upon the following nice problem originally from the 2005 Brazilian Mathematical Olympiad. It is one of those problems that is mathematical in flavour and doesn’t need any previous math knowledge to begin thinking about the problem. For me, a nice problem is one that rewards you for thinking about it and can be attacked from many different angles.

So here’s the problem as stated:

We have four charged batteries, four uncharged batteries, and a flashlight which needs two charged batteries to work. We do not know which batteries are charged and which ones are uncharged. What is the least number of attempts that suffices to make sure the flashlight will work? (An attempt consists of putting two batteries in the flashlight and checking if the flashlight works or not.)

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