22 February 2008

Hats, colors, and algebraic structures

Here's a game: there are a hundred people arranged in a circle. Some of them are wearing blue hats, some of them are wearing yellow hats. None of them can see the color of their hat, but everybody can see the color of everybody else's hats. Each of them in turn has to say "yellow" or "blue". What strategy can they use to ensure that the largest number of them say the color of their own hat? (And how many is that?)

Obviously the first person to speak can't be ensured of saying the color of their own hat. But everyone else can! The strategy is as follows: the first person says "yellow" if they see an even number of blue hats, and "blue" if they see an odd number of blue hats. Say they say "yellow". Then each person after that counts the number of blue hats they see. If they see an even number of blue hats, then their hat must be the same color as the first person's; if they see an odd number of blue hats, their hat must be the opposite color from the first person's. (This is reversed if the first person said "blue".) We can do no better.

The problem pretty easily generalizes to any finite number of colors of hats and finite number of people; the trick is to think of the n colors as the group Z/nZ, that is, the integers under addition modulo n. (It starts seeming very unnatural to express the strategy here in terms of colors, though.)

And it turns out -- this is a bit more surprising -- that we can always do this even when there are an infinite number of people or an infinite number of colors, or both. With an infinite set of colors and a finite number of people the key fact is that any set of colors can be given the structure of an abelian group, even if it's infinite. With an infinite number of colors and an infinite number of people things get kind of weird, and you have to endow the set of colors with a field and invoke Zorn's lemma.

This is basically a summary of Des chapeaux, des couleurs et des structures algébriques (in French, of course) by Florent Benaych-Georges, which I have translated into rather rough English for no good reason.

4 comments:

unapologetic said...

It starts seeming very unnatural to express the strategy here in terms of colors, though.

Any weirder than moving from Fox's original "red, green, blue" to elements of (the Alexander quandle of) $Z_3$ to elements of an arbitrary quandle and still talking in terms of "coloring" knots?

topologicalmusings said...

Excellent post!

michaeldcassidy said...

this is a fun post.

you're right the infinite colors and infinite people is surprising. i haven't been able to wrap my head around it yet.

Kieran said...

Funsies.