Monthly Archives: September 2012

Stand-Up, Relatively Prime, and Aliens?

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

As you may have noticed, we here at Math Munch are all about good math videos.  Well, with Matt Parker’s math stand-up comedy YouTube channel, we feel like we’ve hit the jackpot!

Yes, you read it right – Matt is a math stand-up comedian.  Matt does stand-up comedy routines about mathematics at schools and math conferences in the United Kingdom.  In fact, he and several other mathematicians and teachers have started an organization called Think Maths that sends funny and entertaining mathematicians to schools to get kids more excited about math.  He also does podcasts  and is writing a book!  Cool!

Here are two of my favorite videos from Matt’s channel.  The first is a problem involving a sleeping princess and a sneaky prince.  I haven’t solved the problem yet – so, if you do, don’t give away the answer!


In the second, Matt shows you how to look like you know how to solve a Rubik’s cube and impress your friends.  And it teaches you some interesting facts about Rubik’s cubes at the same time.


We’ve dug deep into the world of cool, mathy videos – but how about cool, mathy radio?  Personally, I love radio.  And I love math – so what could be better than a radio podcast about math?

Check out this new series of podcasts about mathematics by Samuel Hansen.  It’s called Relatively Prime.  The first episode has just been released!  It’s about the fascinating (and a little scary) topic of the three mathematical tools that you’ll need to survive, in Samuel’s words, “the coming apocalypse.”  And what are these tools?  Game theory, the mathematics of risk, and geometric reasoning.  How will these mathematical ideas help you?  Well, listen to the podcast and find out!  The podcast features interviews with many mathematicians, including Edmund Harris (who we wrote about in April) and Matt Parker.

I especially like this podcast because it gives some good answers to the question, “What can mathematics be used for?”  Even though I love doing math just for fun, I sometimes wonder how math can be used in other subjects and problems I might face in my life outside of math.  If you wonder this sometimes, too, you might like listening to this podcast.

We had the opportunity to interview Samuel about mathematics and the making of Relatively Prime.  Check out the interview on the Q&A page.

Finally, talking about the apocalypse (and the uses of math) makes me think about alien encounters.  What are the chances that there’s an intelligent alien civilization out there?  There are a lot of factors that go into answering this question – such as, what are the chances that a planet will develop life?  The evaluation of these chances is largely a matter of science, as is actually contacting aliens.  But math can be used to come up with a formula that tells us how likely it is that we’ll encounter aliens, given the other chances and how they relate to each other.

The equation that models this is called the Drake Equation.  It was developed in 1961 by a scientist named Dr. Frank Drake and has been used by scientists ever since to calculate the chances that there are intelligent aliens for us to talk to.  The equation is particularly interesting because small changes in, say, the number of stars that have planets, can drastically change the chance that we’ll encounter aliens.

Want to play with this equation?  Check out this awesome infographic about the Drake Equation from the BBC.  You can decide for yourself the chances that a planet will develop life and the number of years we’ll be sending messages to aliens or use numbers that scientists think might be accurate.

Bon appetit!  And watch out for aliens.  If my calculations are correct, there are a lot of them out there.

4 Million Digits, Fifteen Furlongs, and 5 Eames Vids

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

We’ve written about Pi before, but when I found this new way of visualizing the number, Pi, I knew I’d have to share it with you. In 2011, Shigeru Kondo and Alex Yee concluded an incredible project – to design and execute a program to calculate digits in the decimal expansion of Pi. What makes their attempt so remarkable is that the program ran for over a year (371 days), during which time it calculated precisely the first 10 trillion digits of Pi! (1 with 13 zeroes!)

A New York design firm, called Two-N, built a wonderful website using the first 4 million digits to help us see the patterns in the digits (or lack thereof). Each digit was assigned a color, and included in the image as a single pixel. What we see is a long (really long) string of colored digits. You can drag across the screen to zoom in on rows. There’s even a search bar so that you can find where your birthday appears, or any other 6-digit string for that matter.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around 4,000,000 digits, check out Fifteen Furlongs. It’s a website designed by Kevin Wang, a college student at the University of Chicago, and it’s designed to help us understand different sizes and units of measurements. Try it.

Fifteen Furlongs? – “That’s about two minutes on the highway.” Didn’t help me  much, but 1 Furlong? – “That’s just under one Empire State Building tall.” Which is really interesting. So, if we laid down several empire state buildings in a row to make a highway, then I could drive over 15 of them in about 2 minutes. Cool! How can I understand 4 million?

  • 4 million pounds is the weight of 1,000 cars.  hmmmm.
  • 4 million cups is about one Olympic-sized pool.  whoa.
  • 4 million seconds is just over forty-six day’s time.  so cool.

Maybe you can play around and figure out just how big 10 trillion is. After each answer there’s a place for you to say whether or not the information was useful, which I assume they use that to improve the responses. Have fun.

Kevin agreed to answer a few questions for us, which you can read in our Q&A section.  If you have ideas for how to improve the site, Kevin wants to hear them. Just leave it in the comments, and he’ll see what he can do.

Finally, some mathematical videos by the well-known 20th century design team of Charles and Ray Eames. In 1961 they worked on an exhibition for IBM called “Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond,” which included a huge timeline with descriptions of famous mathematicians and mathematical discoveries from antiquity to modern times. It also included a “mathematics peepshow,” a collection of fantastic short math films, some of which can be seen on YouTube:

Actually my favorites aren’t even available online! There are 5 more videos available in a new fantastic, free iPad app called Minds of Modern Mathematics. If you donwload the app, check out “Symmetry” and “Exponents.” They’re simply stunning.

The best-known Eames vid is probably Powers of Ten, (embedded below) their 1977 film meant to illustrate the incredible scale of the universe, big and small, and how exponents can help us keep track of the different “levels.” It surely inspired the Huang Twins when they designed The Scale of the Universe.

You know, we typically feature at least one video a week, and they’re starting to pile up! Good news, though: we’ve been keeping track on a YouTube playlist of every video ever Featured on Math Munch. You can also use the Videos link at the top of any page.

Have a great week. Bon appetit!

Algorithmic House, Billiards, and Picma

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Check out this beautiful building:

This is the Endesa Pavilion, located in Barcelona, Spain.  It’s also called Solar House 2.0, and that’s because the tops of all of those pyramid-spikes are covered in solar panels.  But that’s not all – this house was designed to best capture sunlight in the exact location it was built using a mathematical algorithm.

To build this house, architect Rodrigo Rubio, who works for the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, first tracked the path of the sun over the spot he wanted to build the house.  He then plugged that data into a computer program.  This program is a set of mathematical steps called an algorithm that turns data about the movement of the sun in the sky into a geometric building.  The building it creates is the best – or optimal – building for that spot.

It puts solar panels in locations on the building that get the most sunlight and orients them to get the most exposure.  It places windows of different sizes and overhangs at different angles around the house to get the best ventilation, block sunlight from entering the house, and keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.   And, because it’s an algorithm, it can be used to design the optimal house for any location.  The program then creates a pattern for the wooden pieces that make up the house.  This pattern can be sent to a machine that cuts out the pieces, which builders put together like a puzzle.

In this video, Rodrigo explains how the building was designed, how the design works, and how this design can be used to make eco-friendly houses all over the world.


Next, have you ever played billiards?  Maybe you’ve played pool or watched Donald Duck play billiards.  It’s interesting to see how a pool ball moves around on a rectangular billiards table, which is how the table is usually shaped.  But it’s even more interesting to see how a ball moves around on a triangular, pentagonal, circular, or elliptical billiards table!

Want to try?  Check out this series of applets from Serendip, an exploratory math and science website started by some professors at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.  Serendip aims to help people ask and answer their own questions about the world we live in.  In these billiards applets, you can explore dynamical systems – mathematical structures in which an object moves according to a rule.   In some situations, the object will move in a predictable way.  But in other situations, the object moves chaotically.  As you play with the applets, see if you can figure out how the shape of the table effects whether the billiard ball will move chaotically or predictably.  These applets also make some beautiful star-like designs!

Finally, here’s a new game: Picma Squared.  In this game, you use logic to figure out how to color the squares in the grid to make a picture.  It starts out simple, but the higher levels are really challenging!  Enjoy!

Look for this game and others on our Games page!



Bon appetit!

Demonstrations, a Number Tree, and Brainfilling Curves

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Maybe you’re headed back to school this week. (We are!) Or maybe you’ve been back for a few weeks now. Or maybe you’ve been out of school for years. No matter which one it is, we hope that this new school year will bring many new mathematical delights your way!

A website that’s worth returning to again and again is the Wolfram Demonstrations Project (WDP). Since it was founded in 2007, users of the software package Mathematica have been uploading “demonstrations” to this website—amazing illuminations of some of the gems of mathematics and the sciences.

Each demonstration is an interactive applet. Some are very simple, like one that will factor any number up to 10000 for you. Others are complex, like this one that “plots orbits of the Hopalong map.”

Some demonstrations are great for visualizing facts about math, like these:

Any Quadrilateral Can Tile

A Proof of Euler’s Formula

Cube Net or Not?

There’s also a whole category of demonstrations that can be used as MArTH—mathematical art—tools, including these:

Rotate and Fold Back

Polygons Arranged in a Circle

Turtle Fractals

With over 8000 demonstrations to explore and new ones being added all the time, you can see why the Wolfram Demonstrations Project is worth returning to again and again!

Jeffrey Ventrella’s Number Tree

Next up, check out this number tree. It was created by Jeffrey Ventrella, an innovator, artist, and computer programmer who lives in San Francisco. His number tree arranges the numbers from 1 to 100 according to their largest proper factors. For instance, the factors of 18 are 18, 9, 6, 3, 2, and 1. Once we toss out 18 itself as being “improper”—a.k.a. “uninteresting”—the largest factor of 18 is 9. This in turn has as its largest factor 3, and 3 goes down to 1. Chains of factors like this one make up Jeffrey’s tree. It has a wonderful accumulative feeling to it—it’s great to watch how patterns and complexity build up over time.

(On this theme, WDP also has a demonstrations about trees and about prime factorization graphs.)

Cloctal: “a fractal design that visualizes the passage of time”

There’s lots more math to explore on Jeffrey’s website. His piece Cloctal—a fractal clock—is one of my favorites. What I’d like to feature here, though, is the diverse and intricate work Jeffrey has done with plane-filling and space-filling curves.  You can find many examples at, Jeffrey’s website that’s chock full of great links.

Jeffrey recently completed a book called Brainfilling Curves. It’s “a visual math expedition, lead by a lifelong fractal explorer.” According to the description, the book picks up where Mandelbrot left off and develops an intuitive scheme for understanding an “infinite universe of fractal beauty.”

An example of a “brainfilling curve” from Jeffrey’s “root8” family

The title comes from the idea that nature uses space-filling curves quite often, to pack intestines into your gut or lots and lots of tissue into the brain you’re using to read this right now! Hopefully you’re finding all of this math quite brainfilling as well.

(And just one more example of why WDP is worth revisiting: here’s a demonstration that depicts the space-filling Hilbert and Moore curves. So much good stuff!)

Finally, here’s a video that Jeffrey made about brainfilling curves. You can find more on his YouTube channel.

Bon appetit!