I’ve been learning a bit about Golomb rulers recently: a ruler which has so few markings that if you can use it to measure some whole number length, then you can only measure it in one way. I first read about them on the monthly AMS feature column, about their applications inside and outside of maths (to codes, radar, sonar and suchlike), and then watched an excellent TED talk using one particularly useful two-dimensional generalisation (a Costas array) to create a piece of piano music so dissonant that no time-step or jump in pitch between any pair of notes (not necessarily adjacent) is the same.
A perfect Golomb ruler with markings at 0,1,4 and 6, can measure any whole length from 1 to 6, but each in only one way.
I started to wonder about whether Golomb rulers had anything to do with a real-life problem I’ve previously written about, that someone who owned a barge had wanted answered. He asked about how to cut ropes into different lengths so you can knot them together in combinations and get a large variety of new lengths. I had decided the link was merely thematic, until someone else asked me whether they were the same, and prompted me to have a closer look. It turns out the two are somewhat linked, and what’s more, the link can be viewed as a silly little piece of mathemagic!