When the path from a simple question to a simple answer leads you through swamps of computation, you can accept that some amount of tromping through swamps is unavoidable in math and in life, or you can think harder and try to find a different route. This is a story of someone who thought harder.

His name is Arthur Engel. Back in the 1970s this German mathematician was in Illinois, teaching probability theory and other topics to middle-school and high-school students. He taught kids in grades 7 and up how to answer questions like “If you roll a fair die, how long on average should you expect to wait until the die shows a three?” The questions are simple, and the answers also tend to be simple: whole numbers, or fractions with fairly small numerators and denominators. You can solve these problems using fraction arithmetic (in the simpler cases) or small systems of linear equations (for more complicated problems), and those are the methods that Engel taught his students up through the end of 1973. Continue reading