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How many ways to shuffle a pack of cards?

This is an excerpt from friend of The Aperiodical, Matt Parker’s book, “Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension”, which is out now in paperback.


There’s a lovely function in mathematics called the factorial function, which involves multiplying the input number by every number smaller than it. For example: $\operatorname{factorial}(5) = 5 \times 4 \times 3 \times 2 \times 1 = 120$. The values of factorials get alarmingly big so, conveniently, the function is written in shorthand as an exclamation mark. So when a mathematician writes things like $5! = 120$ and $13! = 6,\!227,\!020,\!800$ the exclamation mark represents both factorial and pure excitement. Factorials are mathematically interesting for several reasons, possibly the most common being that they represent the ways objects can be shuffled. If you have thirteen cards to shuffle, then there are thirteen possible cards you could put down first. You then have the remaining twelve cards as options for the second one, eleven for the next, and so on – giving just over 6 billion possibilities for arranging a mere thirteen cards.

Why do $0!$ and $a^0$ equal $1$?

The last two weeks my first year mathematicians and I have covered Taylor series.This means that several times I’ve had the conversation that goes “What’s $0!$?” “It’s $1$.” “Oh, erm, right. Why again?” “Because it works.” This may not be a completely satisfactory answer!

One of my students, Callum Mulligan, tweeted this question.

Saying “by definition” or “because it makes a bunch of stuff work” won’t cut it. So how to answer this question? To give a somewhat intuitive understanding of why this should be the case to a first year undergraduate. It may be obvious, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me how to explain this, so I share some thoughts here.

Like everybody else, you too can be unique. Just keep shuffling

The first take-home lesson of this note is that you too can be unique. You’ll have to keep shuffling to get there, but it is an attainable goal.

Several years ago it dawned on me that the number of possible ways to order or permute the cards in a standard deck of size $52$ was inconceivably large. Of course it was — and still is — $52!$. That’s easy enough to scribble down (or even surpass spectacularly) without understanding just how far we are from familiar territory.