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In the mathematics of figurate numbers, the cannonball problem asks which numbers are both square and square pyramidal. The problem can be stated as: given a square arrangement of cannonballs, for what size squares can these cannonballs also be arranged into a square pyramid. Equivalently, which squares can be represented as the sum of consecutive squares, starting from 1.
Formulation as a Diophantine equation
When cannonballs are stacked within a square frame, the number of balls is a square pyramidal number; Thomas Harriot gave a formula for this number around 1587, answering a question posed to him by Sir Walter Raleigh on their expedition to America. Édouard Lucas formulated the cannonball problem as a Diophantine equation
Lucas conjectured that the only solutions are N = 1, M = 1, and N = 24, M = 70, using either 1 or 4900 cannon balls. It was not until 1918 that G. N. Watson found a proof for this fact, using elliptic functions. More recently, elementary proofs have been published.
Although it is possible to tile a geometric square with unequal squares, it is not possible to do so with a solution to the cannonball problem. The squares with side lengths from 1 to 24 have areas equal to the square with side length 70, but they cannot be arranged to tile it.
- Square triangular number, the numbers that are simultaneously square and triangular
- Sixth power, the numbers that are simultaneously square and cubical
- Close-packing of equal spheres
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