Author Archives: Anna Weltman

Stomachion, Toilet Math, and Domino Computer Returns!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

I recently ran across a very ancient puzzle with a very modern solution– and a very funny name. It’s called the Stomachion, and it looks like this:

Stomachion_850So, what do you do? The puzzle is made up of these fourteen pieces carved out of a 12 by 12 square– and the challenge is to make as many different squares as possible using all of the pieces. No one is totally sure who invented the Stomachion puzzle, but it’s definite that Archimedes, one of the most famous Ancient Greek mathematicians, had a lot of fun working on it.

StomaAnimSometimes Archimedes used the Stomachion pieces to make fun shapes, like elephants and flying birds. (If you think that sounds like fun, check out this page of Stomachion critters to try making and this lesson about the Stomachion puzzle from NCTM.) But his favorite thing to do with the Stomachion pieces was to arrange them into squares!

It’s clear that you can arrange the Stomachion pieces into a square in at least one way– because that’s how they start before you cut them out. But is there another way to do it? And, if there’s a second way, is there a third? How about a fourth? Because Archimedes was wondering about how many ways there are to make a square with Stomachion pieces, some mathematicians give him credit for being an inventor of combinatorics, the branch of math that studies counting things.

Ostomachion536Solutions_850It turns out that there are many, many ways to make squares (the picture above shows all of them– click on it for greater detail)– and Archimedes didn’t find them all. But someone else did, over 2,000 years later! He used a computer to solve the problem– something Archimedes could never have done– but mathematician Bill Cutler found that there are 536 ways to make a square with Stomachion pieces! That’s a lot! If you’ve tried to make squares with the pieces, you might be particularly surprised– it’s pretty tricky to arrange them into one unique square, let alone 536. This finding was such a big deal that it made it into the New York Times. (Though you may notice that the number reported in the article is different– that’s how many ways there are to make a square if you include all of the solutions that are symmetrically the same.)

Other mathematicians have worked on finding the number of ways to arrange the Stomachion pieces into other shapes– such as triangles and diamonds. Given that it took until 2003 for someone to find the solution for squares, there are many, many open questions about the Stomachion puzzle just waiting to be solved! Who knows– if you play with the Stomachion long enough, maybe you’ll discover something new!

Next up, the mathematicians over at Numberphile have worked out a solution to a problem that plagued me a few weeks ago while I was camping– choosing the best outdoor toilet to use without checking all of them for grossness first. Is there a way to ensure that you won’t end up using the most disgusting toilet without having to look in every single one of them? Turns out there is! Watch this video to learn how:

Finally, a little blast from the past. Almost two years ago I share with you a video of something really awesome– a computer made entirely out of dominoes! Well, this year, some students and I finally got the chance to make one of our own! It very challenging and completely exhausting, but well worth the effort. Our domino computer recently made its debut on the mathematical internet, so I thought I’d share it with all of you! Enjoy!

Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

Origami Stars, Tessellation Stars, and Chaotic Stars

Welcome to this week’s star-studded Math Munch!

downloadModular origami stars have taken the school I teach in by storm in recent months! We love making them so much that I thought I’d share some instructional videos with you. My personal favorite is this transforming eight-pointed star. It slides between a disk with a hole the middle (great for throwing) and a gorgeous, pinwheel-like eight-pointed star. Here’s how you make one:

Another favorite is this lovely sixteen-pointed star. You can make it larger or smaller by adding or removing pieces. It’s quite impressive when completed and not that hard to make. Give it a try:

type6thContinuing on our theme of stars, check out these beautiful star tessellations. They come from a site made by Jim McNeil featuring oh-so-many things you can do with polygons and polyhedra. On this page, Jim tells you all about tessellations, focusing on a category of tessellations called star and retrograde tessellations.

type3b400px-Tiling_Semiregular_3-12-12_Truncated_Hexagonal.svgTake, for example, this beautiful star tessellation that he calls the Type 3. Jim describes how one way to make this tessellation is to replace the dodecagons in a tessellation called the 12.12.3 tessellation (shown to the left) with twelve-pointed stars. He uses the 12/5 star, which is made by connecting every fifth dot in a ring of twelve dots. Another way to make this tessellation is in the way shown above. In this tessellation, four polygons are arranged around a single point– a 12/5 star, followed by a dodecagon, followed by a 12/7 star (how is this different from a 12/5 star?), and, finally, a 12/11-gon– which is exactly the same as a dodecagon, just drawn in a different way.

I think it’s interesting that the same pattern can be constructed in different ways, and that allowing for cool shapes like stars and different ways of attaching them can open up crazy new worlds of tessellations! Maybe you’ll want to try drawing some star tessellations of your own after seeing some of these.

Screenshot 2014-05-12 10.48.46Finally, to finish off our week of everything stars, check out the star I made with this double pendulum simulator.  What’s so cool about the double pendulum? It’s a pendulum– a weight attached to a string suspended from a point– with a second weight hung off the bottom of the first. Sounds simple, right? Well, the double pendulum actually traces a chaotic path for most sizes of the weights, lengths of the strings, and angles at which you drop them. This means that very small changes in the initial conditions cause enormous changes in the path of the pendulum, and that the path of the pendulum is not a predictable pattern.

Using the simulator, you can set the values of the weights, lengths, and angles and watch the path traced on the screen. If you select “star” under the geometric settings, the simulator will set the parameters so that the pendulum traces this beautiful star pattern. Watch what happens if you wiggle the settings just a little bit from the star parameters– you’ll hardly recognize the path. Chaos at work!

Happy star-gazing, and bon appetit!

Truchet, Truchet, Truchet!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Why all the excitement about Truchet? And what (or who?) is Truchet, anyway? Great questions, both. I only recently learned about the fascinating world of Truchet and his tiles. I first got hooked on the beautiful patterns you can make with Truchet tiles. So, read on– and maybe you’ll get hooked, too.

Truchet tiling 1

This beautiful pattern is made out of Truchet tiles, deceptively simple square pieces that can fit together to make patterns with enormous complexity. There’s really just one Truchet tile– the square with a triangular half of it colored it– but it can be oriented in four ways.

Truchet tileThere are ten different ways to put two next to each other– or, at least, that’s what Sebastien Truchet discovered when he started working with these tiles way back in the late 1600s. Truchet was a scientist and inventor, but he also dabbled in math. He became interested in the ways of combining these simple tiles while looking at decorations made from ceramic tiles. He started trying to figure out all the different patterns he could make– first with two tiles, then with sequences of them– and soon realized that he was the first person to study this! So, he wrote a little book about his discoveries, which he called “Memoir sur les Combinasions.”

Truchet's chartTranslations of this book are hard to come by (unless you read French), but I found a great site that shows all the images Truchet included in the book. One of my favorites is this chart, in which Truchet shows all the possible ways of combining two tiles. Maybe you’ve noticed that there are way more than ten different combinations on this chart. That’s because this chart is just Truchet brainstorming– drawing everything he can think of. In a later chart, Truchet groups pairs of tiles that he thinks are the same in some really basic way.

Can you see how Truchet grouped the tiles in this chart? Each row corresponds to one of his ten different tiles. Do his categories make sense?

Truchet's equivalences 2Truchet tiling 5Want to try making a beautiful Truchet tiling of your own? You could just start drawing (maybe graph paper would be useful). Or you could try this great Scratch program! You can have it make a random Truchet tiling. Or, you can use a four-digit code, using only the digits 1 through 4, to tell it what pattern to make. Each digit corresponds to a tile with a dark triangle in a different corner. I had fun thinking of a code and then trying to guess what pattern the program would make. Or, you could try to figure out the code for one of your favorite of Truchet’s patterns!

In recent years, mathematicians have starting experimenting with Truchet tiles in new ways. The mathematician and scientist Cyril Stanley Smith was one of the first to do this. He began to introduce curved lines into the tiles and to place them randomly, instead of according to a pattern. These changes make some really interesting results– like this maze made from Truchet-like tiles.

Want to make your own maze from tiles inspired by Truchet? Check out this site with instructions for how to make Truchet mazes! You can use a computer or a more low-tech tool to create an intricate, unique maze.

Bon appetit!

 

Making Pi, Transcending Pi, and Cookies

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch– and happy Pi Day!

What does pi look like? The first 10,000 digits of pi, each digit 0 through 9 assigned a different color.

You probably know some pretty cool things about the number pi. Perhaps you know that pi has quite a lot to do with circles. Maybe you know that the decimal expansion for pi goes on and on, forever and ever, without repeating. Maybe you know that it’s very likely that any string of numbers– your birthday, phone number, all the birthdays of everyone you know listed in a row, followed by all their phone numbers, ANYTHING– can be found in the decimal expansion of pi.

But did you know that pi can be approximated by dropping needles on a piece of paper? Well, it can! If you drop a needle again and again on a lined piece of paper, and the needle is the same length as the distance between the lines, the probably that the needle lands on a line is two divided by pi. This experiment is called Buffon’s needle, after the French naturalist Buffon.

If the angle the needle makes with the lines is in the gray area (like the red needle’s angle is), it will cross the line. If the angle isn’t, it won’t. The possible angles trace out a circle. The closer the center of the needle (or center of the circle) is to the line, the larger the gray area– and the higher the probability of the needle hitting the line.

This may seem strange to you– but if you think about how the needle hitting a line has a lot to do with the distance between the middle of the needle and the nearest line and the angle it makes with the lines, maybe you’ll start to think about circles… and then you’ll get a clue about the connection between this experiment and pi. Working out this probability exactly requires some pretty advanced mathematics. (Feeling ambitious? Read about the calculation here.) But, you can get some great experimental results using this Buffon’s needle applet.

Click on the picture to try the applet.

Click on the picture to try the applet.

I had the applet drop 500 needles. Then, the applet used the fact that the probability of the needle hitting a line should be two divided by pi and the probability it measured to calculate an approximation for pi. It got… well, you can see in the picture. Pretty close, right?

Here’s another thing you might not know: pi is a transcendental number. Sounds trippy– but, like some other famous numbers with letter names, like e, pi can never be the solution to an algebraic equation involving whole numbers. That means that no matter what equation you give me– no matter how large the exponent, how many negatives you toss in, how many times you multiply or divide by a whole number– pi will never, ever be a solution. Maybe this doesn’t sound amazing to you. If not, check out this video from Numberphile about transcendental numbers. Numbers like pi and e don’t do mathematical things we’re used to numbers doing… and it’s pretty weird.

Still curious about transcendental numbers? Here’s a page listing the fifteen most famous transcendental numbers. My favorite? Definitely the fifth, Liouville’s number, which has a 1 in each consecutive factorial numbered place.

Escher cookies 1Finally, maybe you don’t like pi. Maybe you like cookies instead. Lucky for you, you can do many mathematical things with cookies, too. Like make cookie tessellations! This mathematical artist and baker made cookie cutters in the shapes of tiles from Escher tessellations and used them to make mathematical cookie puzzles. Beautiful, and certainly delicious.

If you happen to have a 3D printer, you can make your own Escher cookie cutters. Here’s a link to print out the lizard cutter. If you don’t have a 3D printer, you could try printing out a 2D image of an Escher tessellation and tracing a tile onto a sheet of paper. Cut out the tile, roll out your dough, and slice around the outside of the tile to make your cookies. If you do it right, you shouldn’t have to waste any dough…

Here’s hoping you eat some pi or cookies on pi day! Bon appetit!

Talk Like a Computer, Infinite Hotel, and Video Contest

01010111 01100101 01101100 01100011 01101111 01101101 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01110111 01100101 01100101 01101011 00100111 01110011 00100000 01001101 01100001 01110100 01101000 00100000 01001101 01110101 01101110 01100011 01101000 00100001

Or, if you don’t speak binary, welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Looking at that really, really long string of 0s and 1s, you might think that binary is a really inefficient way to encode letters, numbers, and symbols. I mean, the single line of text, “Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!” turns into six lines of digits that make you dizzy to look at. But, suppose you were a computer. You wouldn’t be able to talk, listen, or write. But you would be made up of lots of little electric signals that can be either on or off. To communicate, you’d want to use the power of being able to turn signals on and off. So, the best way to communicate would be to use a code that associated patterns of on and off signals with important pieces of information– like letters, numbers, and other symbols.

That’s how binary works to encode information. Computer scientists have developed a code called ASCII, which stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, that matches important symbols and typing communication commands (like tab and backspace) with numbers.

To use in computing, those numbers are converted into binary. How do you do that? Well, as you probably already know, the numbers we regularly use are written using place-value in base 10. That means that each digit in a number has a different value based on its spot in the number, and the places get 10 times larger as you move to the left in the number. In binary, however, the places have different values. Instead of growing 10 times larger, each place in a binary number is twice as large as the one to its right. The only digits you can use in binary are 0 and 1– which correspond to turning a signal on or leaving it off.

But if you want to write in binary, you don’t have to do all the conversions yourself. Just use this handy translator, and you’ll be writing in binary 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101110 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101001 01101101 01100101 00101110

Next up, check out this video about a classic number problem: the Infinite Hotel Paradox. If you find infinity baffling, as many mathematicians do, this video may help you understand it a little better. (Or add to the bafflingness– which is just how infinity works, I guess.)

I especially like how despite how many more people get rooms at the hotel (so long as the number of people is countable!), the hotel manager doesn’t make more money…

Speaking of videos, how about a math video contest? MATHCOUNTS is hosting a video contest for 6th-8th grade students. To participate, teams of four students and their teacher coach choose a problem from the MATHCOUNTS School Handbook and write a screenplay based on that problem. Then, make a video and post it to the contest website. The winning video is selected by a combination of students and adult judges– and each member of the winning team receives a college scholarship!

Here’s last year’s first place video.

01000010 01101111 01101110 00100000 01100001 01110000 01110000 01100101 01110100 01101001 01110100 00100001  (That means, Bon appetit!)

Linking Newspaper Rings, Pascal’s Colors, and Poetry of Math

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Here’s something that sounds impossible: turn a single newspaper page into two rings, linked together, using only scissors and folding. No tape, no glue– just folding and a few little cuts.

Want to know how to do it? Check out this video by Mariano Tomatis:

On his website, Mariano calls himself the “Wonder Injector,” a “writer of science with the mission of the magician.” And that video certainly looked like magic! I wonder how the trick works…

Mariano’s website is full of fun videos involving mathe-magical tricks. I like watching them, being completely baffled, and then figuring out how the trick works. Here’s another one that I really like, about a fictional plane saved from crashing. It’s a little creepy.

How does this trick work???

Next up is one of my favorite number pattern — Pascal’s Triangle. Pascal’s Triangle appears all over mathematics– from algebra to combinatorics to number theory.

Pascal’s Triangle always starts with a 1 at the top. To make more rows, you add together two numbers next to each other and put their sum between them in the row below. For example, see the two threes beside each other in the fourth row? They add to 6, which is placed between them in the fifth row.

Pascal’s Triangle is full of interesting patterns (what can you find?)– but my favorite patterns appear when you color the numbers according to their factors.

That’s just what Brent Yorgey, computer programmer and author of the blog “The Math Less Travelled,” did! Here’s what you get if you color all of the numbers that are multiples of 2 gray and all of the numbers that aren’t multiples of 2 blue.

Recognize that pattern? It’s a Sierpinski triangle fractal!

If you thought that was cool, check out this one based on what happens if you divide all the numbers in the triangle by 5. The multiples of 5 are gray; the numbers that leave a remainder of 1 when divided by 5 are blue, remainder 2 are red, remainder 3 are yellow, and remainder 4 are green. And here’s one based on what happens if you divide all the numbers in the triangle by 6.

See the yellow Sierpinski triangle below the blue, red, green, and purple pattern? Why might the pattern for multiples of two appear in the triangle colored based on multiples of 6?

If you want to learn more about how Brent made these images and want to see more of them, check out his blog post, “Visualizing Pascal’s Triangle Remainders.”

Finally, I just stumbled across this collection of mathematical poems written by students at Arcadia University, in a class called “Mathematics in Literature.” They’re the result of a workshop led by mathematician and poet Sarah Glaz, who I met this summer at the Bridges Mathematical Art Conference. Sarah gave the students this prompt:

Step1: Brainstorm three recent school or other situations in your

present life – you can just write a few words to reference them.

Step 2: List 10-20 mathematical words you’ve used in class in the
past month.

Step 3: Write about one of the previous situations using as many
of these words as possible. Try to avoid referencing the situation
directly. Write no more than seven words per line.

Here’s one that I like:

ASPARAGUS, by Sarah Goldfarb

An infinity of hunger within me
Dividing a bunch of green
Snap and sizzle,
Green parentheses in a pan
The aromatic property
Simplifying my want
Producing a need
Each fraction of a second
Dragging its feet impatiently as I wait
And when it is distributed on my plate
It is only a moment before zero
Units of nourishment remain.

Maybe you’ll try writing a poem of your own! If you do, we’d love to see it.

Bon appetit!

Math Meets Art, Quarto, and Snow!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

article-0-19F9E81700000578-263_634x286… And, if you happen to write the date in the European way (day/month/year), happy Noughts and Crosses Day! (That’s British English for Tic-Tac-Toe Day.) In Europe, today’s date is 11/12/13– and it’s the last time that the date will be three consecutive numbers in this century! We in America are lucky. Our last Noughts and Crosses Day was November 12, 2013 (11/12/13), and we get another one next year on December 13 (12/13/14). To learn more about Noughts and Crosses Day and find out about an interesting contest, check out this site. And, to our European readers, happy Noughts and Crosses Day!

p3p13Speaking of Noughts and Crosses (or Tic-Tac-Toe), I have a new favorite game– Quarto! It’s a mix of Tic-Tac-Toe and another favorite game of mine, SET, and it was introduced to me by a friend of mine. It’s quite tricky– you’ll need the full power of your brain to tackle it. Luckily, there are levels, since it can take a while to develop a strategy. Give it a try, and let us know if you like it!

BRUCKER-ICS-DARKRYE-SQUARE

Looking to learn about some new mathematical artists? Check out this article, “When Math Meets Art,” from the online magazine Dark Rye. It profiles seven mathematical artists– some of whom we’ve written about (such as Erik and Martin Demaine, of origami fame, and Henry Segerman), and some of whom I’ve never heard of. The work of string art shown above is by artist Adam Brucker, who specializes in making “unexpected” curves from straight line segments.

gauss17_smallAnother of my favorites from this article is the work of Robert Bosch. One of his specialities is making mosaics of faces out of tiles, such as dominoes. The article features his portrait of the mathematician Father Sebastien Truchet made out of the tiles he invented, the Truchet tiles. Clever, right? The mosaic to the left is of the great mathematician Gauss, made out of dominoes. Check out Robert’s website to see more of his awesome art.

Finally, it snowed in New York City yesterday. I love when it snows for the first time in winter… and that got me wanting to make some paper snowflakes to celebrate! Here’s a video by Vi Hart that will teach you to make some of the most beautiful paper snowflakes.

Hang them on your windows, on the walls, or from the ceiling, and have a very happy wintery day! Bon appetit!