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Answer to Puzzle #1: 12 Coins, Old Fashioned Balance

1. You are given a set of scales and 12 marbles. The scales are of the old balance variety. That is, a small dish hangs from each end of a rod that is balanced in the middle. The device enables you to conclude either that the contents of the dishes weigh the same or that the dish that falls lower has heavier contents than the other.

The 12 marbles appear to be identical. In fact, 11 of them are identical, and one is of a different weight. Your task is to identify the unusual marble and discard it. You are allowed to use the scales three times if you wish, but no more.

Note that the unusual marble may be heavier or lighter than the others. You are asked to both identify it and determine whether it is heavy or light.

Firstly let me stress that this puzzle is very difficult, and worse the answer is not particularly satisfying. It is not a good way to be introduced to my site. Questions 3 & 5 are quite easy. 9 is accessible and interesting and 13 is my favourite. You have been warned.

My answer is something of an amalgam between the Dr. Math web-site, myself, and various emails I received, including a correction from Ben Cronin. It is now rigorous but as easy to follow as is possible.

old fashioned balance puzzle Before reading the answer can I interest you in a clue?

Most people seem to think that the thing to do is weigh six coins against six coins, but if you think about it, this would yield you no information concerning the whereabouts of the only different coin or the nature of it's difference as we already know that one side will be heavier than the other. It's worth mentioning that if this is used as an interview question this observation, by itself, is likely to get you a good portion of the way there.

So that the plan can be followed, let us number the coins from 1 to 12. For the first weighing let us put on the left pan coins 1,2,3,4 and on the right pan coins 5,6,7,8.

There are two possibilities. Either they balance, or they don't. If they balance, then the different coin is in the group 9,10,11,12. So for our second one possibility is to weigh 9,10,11 against 1,2,3

(1) They balance, in which case you know 12 is the different coin, and you just weigh it against any other to determine whether it is heavy or light.
(2) 9,10,11 is heavy. In this case, you know that the different coin is 9, 10, or 11, and that that coin is heavy. Simply weigh 9 against 10; if they balance, 11 is the heavy coin. If not, the heavier one is the heavy coin.
(3) 9,10,11 is light. Proceed as in the step above, but the coin you're looking for is the light one.

That was the easy part.

What if the first weighing 1,2,3,4 vs 5,6,7,8 does not balance? Then any one of these coins could be the different coin. Now, in order to proceed, we must keep track of which side is heavy for each of the following weighings.

Suppose that 5,6,7,8 is the heavy side. We now weigh 1,5,6 against 2,7,8. If they balance, then the different coin is either 3 or 4. Weigh 4 against 9, a known good coin. If they balance then the different coin is 3, otherwise it is 4. The direction of the tilts can tell us whwther the offending coin is heavier or lighter.

Now, if 1,5,6 vs 2,7,8 does not balance, and 2,7,8 is the heavy side, then either 7 or 8 is a different, heavy coin, or 1 is a different, light coin.

For the third weighing, weigh 7 against 8. Whichever side is heavy is the different coin. If they balance, then 1 is the different coin. Should the weighing of 1,5, 6 vs 2,7,8 show 1,5,6 to be the heavy side, then either 5 or 6 is a different heavy coin or 2 is a light different coin. Weigh 5 against 6. The heavier one is the different coin. If they balance, then 2 is a different light coin.

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