The Aliens and Presidents Puzzle

This post is about a very tricky math puzzle, and really has very little to do with aliens or presidents. This puzzle made the rounds stumping people at Reed College in 2014, and was created by my friend Steve Silverman (who seems to have an unlimited supply of unique puzzles of his own design). All credit for cleverness and ingenuity goes to him. This post was written because there were several people who did not believe that this puzzle had a real, unique, solution or else that there was some wordplay involved rather than mathematics.

What is Tohuvavohu?

The first one-and-a-half lines of Genesis go as follows: …בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ. והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על־פני תהום In the Hebrew text above, the phrase ‘Tohu va-vohu’ is in bold, the 3rd and 4th words of the second sentence (right-to-left). These lines are commonly translated as: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was Tohu va-vohu and darkness was on the face of the deep…”