A housewife is waiting for guests and has prepared a cake. She doesn't know how many guests will come, but it will be $n-1$, $n$, or $n+1$. What is the minimal number $f(n)$ of pieces the cake should be cut to make it possible to divide between guests equally?

For $n=2$, $f(n)=f(2)=4$:

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The problem was posed 16.10.2018 by Oleksandr Maksymets on page 76 of Volume 2 of the Lviv Scottish Book.

The prize: Cooked duck or lunch + beer!

  • 10
    $\begingroup$ A more-or-less obvious upper bound for $f(n)$ is $3n-2$: divide the cake into $n$ pieces of size $\frac1{n+1}$ plus $n-1$ pieces of size $\frac1{n(n+1)}$ and plus $(n-1)$ pieces of size $\frac1{(n+1)n(n-1)}$. So, the question is if this upper bound $3n-2$ is exact. $\endgroup$ May 4 '19 at 6:30
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ $f(3)=6$. To see that $f(3)\ge 6$, assume that the cake can be divided into less that 6 pieces. If 3 guests come then one of them should obtain a single piece, which means that there is a piece of size $\frac13$. But this piece is too large when 4 guests will come. So, $f(3)\le 6$. To see that $f(3)\le 6$, just divide the cake into 3 pieces of size $\frac14$ and 3 pieces of size $\frac1{12}$. $\endgroup$ May 4 '19 at 7:49
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Related: Minimal possible cardinality of a $(a_1, ..., a_k)$-distributable multiset $\endgroup$ May 4 '19 at 7:52
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ if $n$ is odd, $3n-3$ pieces are enough, since the regular $k$-gons for $k=n-1, n, n+1$ inscribed in the same circle and sharing the same vertex have in total $3n-3$ vertices. $\endgroup$ May 4 '19 at 11:11
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ Maybe this is a cultural thing or something lost in translation, but it's 2019 and this is a site for professional mathematicians, so I feel it would be better if the word "housewife" were replaced by some other noun such as "mathematician". $\endgroup$ May 7 '19 at 20:47

Too long for a comment. Here is a way to use around $8n/3$ pieces.

Cut out as many pieces of length $1/(n+1)+1/n+1/(n-1)$ as you can; there are $k\approx n/3$ of them. Imagine each such piece as a segment; this segment can be cut into pieces $1/(n+1),1/n,1/(n-1)$ (in this order) and $1/(n-1),1/(n+1),1/n$ (in this order). Mark cutting points for both cuttings, and cut by all of them. Notice that pieces of the same desired length do not overlap within the segment.

Thus, after $5k$ cuttings you get $2k$ non-overlapping pieces of each type separately. To arrange other $n-1-2k$ pieces of length $1/(n-1)$, take away those $2k$ pieces of length $1/(n-1)$, form a single segment of the others, and cut it into desired pieces of length $1/(n-1)$ by $n-2-2k$ cuts. Similarly, we need $(n-1-2k)+(n-2k)$ additional cuts in order to get the other two distributions possible.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sorry, but I do not understand your idea. You just cut the cake into pieces of size $\frac1{n+1}$, $\frac1{n}$ or $\frac1{n-1}$. But the pieces $\frac1n$ and $\frac1{n-1}$ are forbidden as they are too large in case $(n+1)$ guests will come. $\endgroup$ May 4 '19 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ I think he is cutting pieces again, into subpieces, so the sizes are smaller $\endgroup$
    – kodlu
    May 4 '19 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ @TarasBanakh: In the first part, I cut the same piece into those segments twice. Now I tried to make it clear in the text. $\endgroup$ May 5 '19 at 4:38
  • $\begingroup$ @IlyaBogdanov Thank you for the explanations. Now I have understood. Very cute! $\endgroup$ May 5 '19 at 8:12

Writing down the details of the argument of Ilya Bogdanov, we can obtain the following upper bound:

Theorem. $f(n)\le\frac83n-1$ for every $n\ge 2$.

Proof. If $n=3k+1$ or $n=3k+2$, then following the idea of Ilya Bogdanov, divide the cake into $k$ pieces of length $\frac1{n-1}+\frac1n+\frac1{n-1}$. This is possible since $k(\tfrac1n+\tfrac1{n-1}+\tfrac1{n+1})<1$. Cutting each of these pieces into 5 subpieces of lengths $$\tfrac1{n+1},\;\;\tfrac1{n-1}-\tfrac1{n+1},\;\;\tfrac1{n+1}+\tfrac1n-\tfrac1{n-1},\;\;\tfrac1{n-1}-\tfrac1n,\;\; \tfrac1n,$$ we can compose of these subpieces two pieces of any of the lengths: $\frac1{n-1}$, $\frac1n$, $\frac1{n+1}$. Cutting these $k$-pieces with 5 subpieces requires $5k+1$ cuts. To produce the remaining number of pieces it is necessary to make $((n-1)-2k-1)+(n-2k-1)+(n+1-2k-1)=3n-6k-3$ cuts. Summing up we obtain $5k+1+3n-6k-3=3n-k-2$ cuts.

Therefore, for $n=3k+1$ we have the desired upper bound: $$ \begin{multline*} f(n)=f(3k+1)\le 3n-k-2=(9k+3)-k-2=8k+1=\\ =\tfrac83(n-1)+1=\tfrac83n-\tfrac53<\tfrac83n-1. \end{multline*}$$ For $n=3k+2$ we have a similar upper bound: $$ \begin{multline*} f(n)=f(3k+2)\le 3n-k-2=(9k+6)-k-2=8k+4=\\=\tfrac83(n-2)+4=\tfrac83n-\tfrac43<\tfrac83n-1. \end{multline*}$$

For $n=3k$ we divide the cake into $k-1$ pieces of length $\frac1{n-1}+\frac1n+\frac1{n+1}$ and one piece of lenth $\frac1{n-1}+\frac2{n+1}$. Since $$(k-1)(\tfrac1{n-1}+\tfrac1n+\tfrac1{n+1})+(\tfrac1{n-1}+\tfrac2{n+1})<1$$such division is possible. Then divide each of $(k-1)$ pieces like in the preceding case. The remaining piece of length $\frac1{n-1}+\frac2{n+1}$ divide into 5 pices of lengths: $$\tfrac1{n+1},\;\; \tfrac1{n-1}-\tfrac1{n+1},\;\;\tfrac2{n+1}-\tfrac1{n-1},\;\; \tfrac1{n-1}-\tfrac1{n+1},\;\;\tfrac1{n+1}.$$ Of these 5 subpieces we can compose either 2 pieces of length $\frac1{n-1}$ or 3 pieces of length $\frac1{n+1}$.

Then it suffices to make $$(5k+1)+((n-1)-2k-1)+(n-2(k-1)-1)+((n+1)-(2k+1)-1)=3n-k-1$$cuts to have the required number of pieces of length $\frac1{n-1}$, $\frac1n$ or $\frac1{n+1}$. Then $$f(n)=f(3k)\le 3n-k-1=8k-1=\tfrac83n-1.\qquad\square$$

Remark. Comparing the known values (and upper bounds) of the function $f(n)$ for $n\le 5$ (resp. for $n\le 8$) with the upper bound $u(k)=\lfloor\frac83n-1\rfloor$, we see that $f(n)=u(n)$ only for $n=2$ and $n=4$:







$f(8)\le 18<20=u(8)$.

It is interesting to calculate the precise values of $f(n)$ for small $n\ge6$.

Remark. I have updated the values of $f(n)$ for n=6,7,8 according to the comments and answers of Max Alekseyev, Gerry Myerson, and Gabe K.



$f(7)\ge15$ follows from a comment of Fedor Petrov on the original question, so it suffices to find a way to cut the cake into $15$ pieces so as to serve $6$, $7$, or $8$ guests.

Let the size of the cake be $168$ (so that all the following computations involve only whole numbers). Let the $15$ pieces be of sizes $1,2,4,5,7,8,10,11,13,14,16,17,19,20,21$ (that is, every size not a multiple of $3$ up to $20$, and $21$). Then




Note that this disproves my conjecture $f(n)=[5n/2]-1$ which evaluates to $16$ when $n=7$.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The value $f(7)=15$ shows the difference of the problem with $n-1,n,n+1$ guests and the problem with $1,2,3,\dots,n$ guests, considered in oeis.org/A265286 $\endgroup$ May 6 '19 at 5:48
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, what is the exact value of $f(6)$? At the moment we have only the bounds $13\le f(6)\le 14$. $\endgroup$ May 6 '19 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Taras, I'm convinced it's $14$, but every time I try to write out a proof, new cases come up that I haven't considered. $\endgroup$ May 6 '19 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ @TarasBanakh: In fact, $f(6)=13$ - see my answer below. $\endgroup$ Sep 22 '20 at 16:03

$f(6) = 13$ with a cake of size $210$ and piece sizes: $$\{3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 13, 17, 18, 20, 22, 25, 27, 30\},$$ where $$17+25 = 5+10+27 = 20 + 22 = 3+8+13+18 = 12+30,$$ $$10+25 = 5+30 = 3+12+20 = 17+18 = 13 + 22 = 8+27,$$ $$5+25 = 3+27 = 10+20 = 12+18 = 13+17 = 30 = 8+22.$$ It was computed with via solving MILP as explained in my other answer.


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