So today I was making some rice, and I decided based on calorie load that I wanted more than 1/3 cup of rice, but less than 1/2. I decided that 5/12 cup was acceptable, but my only tools were a 1/4 cup scoop and a 1/3 cup scoop.

I didn’t have to think very hard about this; I instantly knew it was possible to get 5/12 cup of rice with these tools, because 4 and 3 are relatively prime–i.e., they share no common factors. More on this in a minute, but first, how to do it.

It’s a very uncomplicated idea, and it should look very similar to the Die Hard 3 water puzzle. In the film, John McClain has a 3 liter jug and a 5 liter jug, and wants to get exactly 4 liters of water. My rice puzzle is basically the same game. To get my 5/12 cup of rice, I fill the 1/3 cup scoop and pour that rice into my rice cooker. Then I again fill the 1/3 scoop and pour that (without spilling) into the 1/4 scoop. How much remains in the 1/3 scoop? Well, I had 4/12 cup of rice in it, and I took out 3/12 cup of rice. So only 1 remains in the 1/3 cup scoop. Add the 1/12 to the rice cooker, and since 1/3+1/12=5/12, we’re done. And although that’s how I did it, I actually didn’t even need to get the rice cooker involved. I can form 5/12 cups inside the scoops without having to use another vessel (though the thing holding all my rice is allowed). I could have filled the 1/3 cup scoop, poured that into the 1/4 cup scoop, emptied the 1/4 cup scoop, poured the 1/12 cup in the 1/3 cup scoop into the 1/4 cup scoop, then filled the 1/3 cup scoop. Tada!

I warned you that it was very uncomplicated; the above is really not very interesting on any level. What is interesting is why this works, and how I knew so quickly that it must be possible to do it. If you don’t know why, then all that stuff I just wrote might seem like a cute curiosity, when really there is a very basic underlying principle involved. Instead of needing to ask “I wonder if it’s possible to get 1/6 cups of rice with those tools”, I can instantly say that the answer is “yes”. I didn’t have to think about it at all. Here’s how it works.

Instead of thinking of the scoops as 1/4 and 1/3 cup, I’ll do you a favor and eliminate the fractions for you. Let’s think of them as 3 and 4 serving scoops (out of 12), respectively. Believe it or not, we’re almost done. As it turns out, if the greatest common divisor (written ) of these two values (in this case 3 and 4 from 1/4 cup and 1/3 cup scoops, respectively) is 1, then it’s possible to get any of 1/12, 2/12, 3/12, 4/12, 5/12, 6/12, or 7/12 cups of rice (maxing out at 3+4=7, because that’s the maximum amount of stuff our two scoops can hold). Said another way, I can get 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 servings (out of 12) in this fashion. Why? Because if (and thank goodness that’s the case), then there exist integers and satisfying

But that isn’t what I wanted! I wanted something like . But this is easy. Multiply the above equation on both sides by 5 and we get

So just call and . So it must be possible.

And people say that pure math has no practical application.