My Favorite Sequences: “Not Equal” Grid

This is the third installment in a recurring series, My Favorite Sequences. This post discusses OEIS sequence A278299, a sequence that took over two years to compute enough terms to add to the OEIS with confidence that it was distinct.

This sequence is discussed in Problem #23 of my Open Problems Collection, which asks for the smallest polyomino (by number of cells) whose cells you can color with \(n\) different colors such that any two different colors are adjacent somewhere in the polyomino. As illustrated below, when there are \(n=5\) colors (say, green, brown, blue, purple, and magenta) there is a \(13\)-cell polyomino which has a green cell adjacent to a blue cell and a purple cell adjacent to a brown cell and so on for every color combination. This is the smallest polyomino with the \(5\)-coloring property.

Five colors of blocks, where any two different colors of blocks are adjacent somewhere in the polyomino.

The Genesis: Unequal Chains

The summer after my third undergraduate year, I decided to switch my major to Math and still try to graduate on time. Due to degree requirements, I had to go back and take some lower-division classes that I was a bit over-prepared for. One of these classes—and surely my favorite—was Bill Bogley‘s linear algebra class, where I half-way paid attention and half-way mused about other things.

Bill wrote something simple on the board that sparked inspiration for me: $$a \neq b \neq c \neq a.$$ He wrote this to indicate that \(a\), \(b\), and \(c\) were all distinct, and this got me thinking: if we have to write a string of four variables in order to say that three variables are distinct, how many would we have to write down to say that four variables were distinct? It turns out that \(8\) will do the trick, with one redundancy: $$a\neq b \neq c \neq d \neq b \color{red}{\neq} c \neq a.$$ Five variables? \(11\): $$a_1 \neq a_2 \neq a_3 \neq a_4 \neq a_5 \neq a_3 \neq a_1 \neq a_4 \neq a_2 \neq a_5.$$ What about \(n\) variables?

My colleague and the then-President of the OSU Math Club, Tommy Pitts, made quick work of this problem. He pointed out that “not equal” is a symmetric, non-transitive, non-reflexive relation. This means that we can model this with a complete graph on \(n\) vertices, where each edge is a relation. Then the number of variables needed in the expression is the number of edges in the complete graph, plus the minimum number of Eulerian paths that we can split the graph into. Searching for this in the OEIS yields sequence A053439. $$A053439^*(n) = \begin{cases} \binom{n}{2} + 1 & n \text{ is odd} \\ \binom{n}{2} + \frac n 2 & n \text{ is even}\end{cases}$$

A Generalization: Unequal Chainmail

This was around 2014, at which time I was writing letters to my friend Alec Jones whenever I—rather frequently!—stumbled upon a new math problem that interested me. In the exchange of letters, he suggested a 2D version of this puzzle. Write the \(n\) variables in the square grid, and say that two variables are unequal if they’re adjacent.

While Tommy solved the 1D version of the problem quickly, the 2D version was much more stubborn! However we were able to make some progress. We found some upper bounds (e.g. the 1D solution) and some lower bounds, and we were able to prove that some small configurations were optimal. Finally, in November 2016, we had ten terms: enough to prove that this sequence was not in the OEIS. We added it as A278299.

\(a(n)\) is the tile count of the smallest polyomino with an \(n\)-coloring such that every color is adjacent to every other distinct color at least once.

OEIS sequence A278299.

(In May 2019, Alec’s student Ryan Lee found the \(11\)th term: \(A278299(11) = 34\). \(A278299(12)\) is still unknown.)

A screenshot from my game illustrating the largest known term: \(A278299(14) = 56\). Every number is connected to every other number. The red edges refer to redundant connections.

We found these terms by establishing some lower bounds (as explained below) and then implementing a Javascript game (which you can play here) with a Ruby on Rails backend to allow people to submit their hand-crafted attempts. Each solution was constructive proof of an upper bound, so when a user submitted a solution that matched the lower bound, we were able to confirm that term of the sequence.

(One heuristic for making minimal configurations is to start with the construction in OEIS sequence A260643 and add cells as necessary in an ad hoc fashion.)

Lower bounds

There are a few different ways of proving lower bounds.

  • We know that there needs to be at least \(\binom{n}{2}\) relations, one between each pair of variables. OEIS sequence A123663 gives the “number of shared edges in a spiral of n unit squares,” which can be used to compute a lower bound: $$A039823(n) = \left\lceil \frac{n^2+n+2}{4}\right\rceil$$
  • Every number needs to be in contact with at least (n-1) other numbers, and each occurrence can be in contact with at most (4) others. So each number needs to occur at least \(\lceil \frac{n-1}{4}\rceil\) times, for a total of \(n\lceil \frac{n-1}{4}\rceil\) occurrences. This bound is usually weaker than the above bound.
  • For the cases of \(n = 5\) and \(n=9\), the lower bounds were proved using ad hoc methods, by looking at how many cells would need to have a given number of neighbors.

Upper Bounds

Besides the upper bound that comes from the 1-dimensional version of the problem, that only upper bounds that I know of come from hand-crafted submissions on my Javascript game on my website.

Do you have any ideas for an explicit and efficient algorithm for constructing such solutions? If so, let me know on Twitter @PeterKagey.


The lower and upper bounds show that this is asymptotically bounded between \(n^2/4\) and \(n^2/2\). It’s possible that this doesn’t have a limit at all, but it would be interesting to bound the liminf and limsup further. My intuition is that \(n^2/4\) is the right answer, can you prove or disprove this?


  • We could play this game on the triangular grid, or in the 3-dimensional cubic grid. Do you have ideas of other graphs that you could do this on?
  • This game came from Tommy’s analysis of looking at “not equal to” as a symmetric, non-reflexive, non-transitive relation. Can you do a similar analysis on other kinds of relations?
  • Is there a good way of defining what it means for two solutions to be the same? For a given number of variables, how many essentially different solutions exist? (Related: Open problem #108.)
  • What if we think of left-right connections as being different from up-down connections, and want both? Or what if we want each variable \(x\) to be neighbors with another \(x\)?

If you have ideas about these questions or any questions of your own, please share them with me by leaving a comment or letting me know on Twitter, @PeterKagey!

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