Based on my students’ reactions, I gave my best math joke in years as I went over the proofs for checking that an integer was a multiple of 3 or a multiple of 9. I started by proving a lemma that 9 is always a factor of . I asked my students how I’d write out , and they correctly answered , a numeral with consecutive s. So I said, “Who let the dogs out? Me. See: nines.”

Some of my students laughed so hard that they cried.

There are actually at least three ways of proving this lemma. I love lemmas like these, as they offer a way of, in the words of my former professor Arnold Ross, to think deeply about simple things.

(1) By subtracting, , which is clearly a multiple of 9.

(2) We can use the rule

The conclusion follows by letting and .

From my experience, my senior math majors all learned the rule for factoring the difference of two squares, but very few learned the rule for factoring the difference of two cubes, while almost none of them learned the general factorization rule above. As always, it’s not my students’ fault that they weren’t taught these things when they were younger.

I also supplement this proof with a challenge to connect Proof #2 with Proof #1… why does ?

(3) We can use mathematical induction.

If , then , which is a multiple of 9.

We now assume that is a multiple of 9.

To show that is a multiple of 9, we observe that

,

and both terms on the right-hand side are multiples of 9. (I also challenge my students to connect the right-hand side with the original expression .)

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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