Braids, Hacktastic, and Rock Climbing

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!


Math hair braiding art by So Yoon Lym, shown at the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings.

First up, a little about one of my favorite things to do (and part of what got me into math in the first place!): hair braiding. If you’ve ever done a complicated braid in someone’s hair before, you might have had an inkling that something mathematical was going on. Well, you’re right! Mathematicians Gloria Ford Gilmer and Ron Eglash have spent much of their careers studying and teaching about the math that goes into hair braiding.


See the tessellation?

In their research, Gloria and Ron investigate how math can improve hair braiding, how hair braiding can improve math, and how the overlap between the two can teach us about how different cultures use and understand math. As Gloria shows in her article on math and braids, tessellations are very important to braided designs.


And so are fractals! Ron studies how fractals are used in African and African American designs, including in the layouts of towns, tile patterns, and cornrow braids. (Watch his TED Talk to learn more!) On his beautiful website dedicated to the math of cornrows, Ron shows how braiders use tools essential to making fractals to design their braids.

programmed braid

Just like when making a fractal, braid designers repeat the same shape while shifting, rotating, reflecting, and shrinking it. You can design your own mathematical cornrow braid using Ron’s braid programming app! If you’ve ever used Scratch, this app will look very familiar. I made the spiral braid on the right using the app. Next challenge: try to make your braid on a real head of hair…

trig bracelets Laura Taalman

Next up, a little about something I wish I could do: make awesome 3D-printed art! Here’s a blog that might help me (and you) get started. Mathematician Laura Taalman (who calls herself @mathgrrl on Twitter) writes a blog called Hacktastic all about making math designs, using a 3D-printer and many other tools. She has designs for all kinds of awesome things, from Menger sponges to trigonometric bracelets. One of the best things about Laura’s site is that she tells you the story behind how she came up with her designs, along with all the instructions and code you’ll ever need to make her designs yourself.

Rock climbing Skip

Skip Garibaldi, climbing

Finally, a little about something I’m trying to learn to do better: rock climbing! Mathematician Skip Garibaldi loves both math and rock climbing– so he decided to combine his interests for the better of each. In this video, Skip discusses some of the mathematical ideas important to rock climbing– including some essential to a type of climbing that I find most intimidating, lead climbing. Check it out!

Bon appetit!

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