Real Mathematics – Strange Worlds #9

Island S

I own a private island near New Zealand. (In my dreams) Unfortunately I put it on the market due to the economical crisis. If I can’t sell my island I will have to use charter flights to Nice instead of using my private jet.


I created an ad on Ebay. But I choose a different approach when I set a price for my island:

“A slightly used island on sale for 100.000 dollars times the coastline length of the island.

Note: Buyer must calculate the length of the coastline.”

Soon enough I got an offer from a potential buyer. Buyer said he calculated the coastline length as follows:


Buyer used three straight lines in order to measure the length of the coastline. He took each line 8 km long which gave 8*3=24 km. Hence his offer was 24*100.000 = 2.400.000 dollars.

I thought my island worth more than that. Hence I asked the buyer to evaluate his bid again. He came up with a new bid:


This time buyer used seven 5-km-long lines: 5*7=35 km. Thus his second offer was 3.500.000 dollars.

Even though new offer is higher, I thought the buyer can do better. This is why I asked the buyer to measure the length of the coastline one more time:


At last buyer used sixteen 3-km-long lines: 3*16=48 km. Therefore buyer’s final last offer was 4.800.000 dollars.

Q: What is the highest bid I can get from a buyer?

Give yourself a second and think about the answer before continuing the article.

Coastline Paradox

As the buyer decreases the length of the ruler, length of the coastline will get bigger. What is the smallest length for the ruler?

1 cm?

1 mm?

1 mm divided by 1 billion?

There isn’t any answer for the smallest length of a ruler; it can be decreased up to a point where it is infinitely small.

Since there is a disproportion between the length of the ruler and the length of the coastline, coastline can have infinity length.

This is a paradox. Because it is a known fact that there isn’t any land on earth which has infinitely long coastline. Although using buyer’s measurement method, one can’t find an upper limit for the coastline of Island S.

Root of the Problem

British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953) had done a very interesting research in the first part of the 20th century. He wanted to know what factors would reduce the frequency of wars between any two country. One of the questions he asked was the following:

“Is there any correlation between the probability of war and the shared border length among two neighbor countries?”

Richardson took Spain and Portugal as an example. Therefore he wanted to know the border length between them. Richardson was really surprised when two countries reported their measurements. Even though they measured the same length, there was a difference of 200 km between two values.


This huge difference led Richardson to pursue the topic and he eventually came up with the coastline paradox.

Is there a sensible explanation for this paradox?

To be continued…

One wonders…

How can my island’s coastline be measured if I want to sell my island for more than 6.000.000 dollars?

M. Serkan Kalaycıoğlu

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