# 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.

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…

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.

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!

# Harriss Spiral, Math Snacks, and SET

Happy New Year, and welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

The Harriss Spiral

Exciting news, folks! The Golden Ratio curve– that beautiful spiral that everyone adores– has evolved. And not into a freak of nature, either! Into something– dare I say it?– even more beautiful…

Meet the Harriss spiral. It was discovered/invented by mathematician and artist Edmund Harriss (featured before here and here) when he began playing around with golden rectangles. A golden rectangle is a very special rectangle, whose sides are in a particular proportion. You can read more about them here— but what’s most important to this new discovery is what you can do with them. If you make a square inside a golden rectangle you get another golden rectangle– and continuing to make squares and new golden rectangles inside of ever-shrinking golden rectangles, and drawing arcs through the squares, is one way to make the beautiful golden ratio spiral.

Edmund Harriss decided to get creative. What would happen, he wondered, if he cut the golden rectangle into two similar rectangles (same shape, just one is a scaled-down version of the other) and a square? And then what if he did the same thing to the new rectangles, again and again to make a fractal? Edmund’s new golden rectangle fractal makes this pattern, and when you draw a spiral through it, you get a lovely branching shape.

But don’t take my word for it. Math journalist Alex Bellos broke the news just this week in his article in The Guardian. His article explains much, much more than I can here– check it out to learn many more wonderful things about the Harriss spiral (and other spirals that Harriss has created…)!

(Bonus: Here’s a GeoGebra demonstration created by John Golden that builds the Harriss Spiral. It’s awesome!)

Next up is a site that sounds quite a lot like Math Munch. But it’s all games and cartoons, all the time. (Maybe that means you’ll like it better…) Check out Math Snacks, a site developed by a group of math educators at New Mexico State University. They worked hard to create games and animations that are both fun and full of interesting math.

One of my favorite games on Math Snacks is called Game Over Gopher.In this game, you have to save your carrot from an army of gophers by placing little machines that feed the gophers. Where’s the math, you may wonder? Placing the gopher-feeders and the other equipment that can help you save the carrot requires you to think carefully about geometry and coordinates.

Finally, speaking of games, here’s one of my favorites. I love to play SET, and I recently found a way to play online– either against a friend or against the computer. Click on this link to start your own game!

To play SET, you deal 12 cards. Then, you try to find a group of 3 cards that all share and all don’t share the same characteristics. For example, in the picture to the right– do you see the cards with the empty red ovals? They’re all the same shape, shading, and color (oval, empty, red), but they’re all different numbers (1, 2, and 3). Can you find any other sets in the picture? (Hint: One involves purple.)

Want to hone your SET skills without competing? Here’s a daily SET puzzle to challenge you.

Enjoy the games (and maybe invent a spiral of your own) and bon appetit!

# Grothendieck, Circle Packing, and String Art

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

This week brought some sad news to the mathematical world. Alexander Grothendieck, known by many as the greatest mathematician of the past century, passed away on November 13th. You may not have heard of him, but many mathematicians say that the work he did in math was as influential as the work Albert Einstein did in physics.

One of the things that make Grothendieck so interesting is, of course, the math he did. Grothendieck was always very creative. When he was in high school, he preferred to do math problems he made up on his own over the problems assigned by his teacher. “These were the book’s problems, and not my problems,” he said.

When he was young, inspired by some gaps he found in definitions in his geometry book about measuring lengths and areas, Grothendieck re-created some of the most important mathematical ideas of the beginning of the twentieth century. Maybe this sounds silly to you– why re-invent something that’s already been done? But, to Grothendieck, the most important part was that he’d done the whole thing by himself. He’d figured out something in his own way. He later wrote that this experience showed him what being a mathematician was like:

Without having been told, I nevertheless knew ‘in
my gut’ that I was a mathematician: someone who
‘does’ math, in the fullest sense of the word…

During his years as a mathematician, Grothendieck worked on connecting different parts of math (a project requiring a lot of creativity)– algebra, geometry, topology, and calculus, among others.

Alexander Grothendieck as a kid

The other thing that makes Grothendieck so interesting is his life story. As a kid, Grothendieck and his parents fled from Germany to France to escape the Nazis. As an adult, Grothendieck spoke out strongly for peace. He used his fame to take a stand against the wars of the second half of the twentieth century. This eventually led him to step away from the world of mathematicians– which many regretted. But he left behind work that changed all of mathematics for the better.

If you’d like to learn more about Grothendieck’s fascinating life and work, check out this great (but long) article from the American Mathematical Society. This article provides a shorter history, including a great statement Grothendieck made about his feelings on creativity in mathematics. Grothendieck was a very private person, so many of his mathematical writings aren’t available online– but the Grothendieck Circle has done their best to collect everything written about him.

A pretty circle packing

Next up, a little something for you to play with! We were studying circle packing problems in one of my classes this week. Did you know that you can fit exactly six circles snugly around another circle of the same size? But, if you try to fit circles snugly around a circle twice as large, it doesn’t work? I wonder why that is…

I did it!

Anyway, my class inspired me to look for a circle packing game– and I found one! In this game, simply called Circle Packing, you have to fit all of the smaller circles into the larger circle– without any of them touching! It’s pretty tricky, and really fun.

Finally, the Math Munch team got something wonderful in the mail (email, I guess) this week! Math art made by Julia Dweck’s 5th grade math class! Julia’s class has been working hard to make parabolic curve string art– curves made by drawing (or stringing, in this case) many, many straight lines. They plotted each curve precisely before stringing it, to make sure it was both mathematically and artistically perfect. The pieces they made are so creative and beautiful. We’re proud to feature them on our site!

You can see the whole collection of string art pieces made by Julia’s class on our Readers’ Gallery String Art page. And, want to know more about how the 5th graders made their String Art? Have any questions for Julia and her students about their love of math and the connections they see between math and art? Write your questions here and we’ll send them to Julia’s students!

Have any math art of your own? Send it to mathmunchteam@gmail.com, and we’ll post it in the Readers’ Gallery!

Bon appetit!

# Weights, Crazy Geometry Game, and Pumpkin Polyhedra

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Here’s a puzzle for you: You have 12 weights, 11 of which weigh the same amount and 1 of which is different. Luckily you also have a balance, but you’re only allowed to use it three times. Can you figure out which weight is the different weight?

You certainly can! I won’t tell you how, but you can figure it out for yourself while playing this interactive weight game. This puzzle is tricky, but definitely fun. If one weight puzzle isn’t enough for you, you’re in luck– there are many, many variations! Check out this site to try a similar puzzle with nine weights, ten weights, and 27 weights.

My solution to the Circle Pack 2 challenge. Can you do it in only 5 moves?

Next up, if you like drawing challenges, this is the game for you. Check out this crazy geometry game, in which you have to draw different shapes (like perfect equilateral triangles, squares, pentagons, and groups of circles of particular sizes) using only circles and straight lines! Here’s my solution to one of the challenges, the Circle Pack 2. See the two smaller circles inside of the larger middle circle? That’s what I wanted to draw– but I had to make all of those other circles and lines to get there! I did the Circle Pack 2 challenge in 8 moves, but apparently there’s a way to do it in only 5…

Finally, it’s pumpkin season again! Every year I scour the internet for new math-y ways to carve pumpkins. We’re all in luck this year– because I found great instructions for how to carve pumpkin polyhedra from Math Craft!  Check out this site to learn how to carve all the basics– tetrahedra, cubes, octahedra, dodecahedra, and (my favorite) icosahedra– and a bonus polyhedron, the truncated icosahedron (also know as the soccer ball).

Pumpkin Platonic polyhedra!

Don’t forget to make pi with the leftover pumpkin! Oh, and, bon appetit!

# Squaring, Water Calculator, and Snap the Turtle

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

I’ve been really into squares lately. Maybe it’s because I recently ran across a new puzzle involving squares– something called Mrs. Perkin’s quilt.

69 by 69 Mrs. Perkin’s quilt.

The original version of the puzzle was published way back in 1907, and it went like this: “For Christmas, Mrs. Potipher Perkins received a very pretty patchwork quilt constructed of 169 square pieces of silk material. The puzzle is to find the smallest number of square portions of which the quilt could be composed and show how they might be joined together. Or, to put it the reverse way, divide the quilt into as few square portions as possible by merely cutting the stitches.”

18 by 18 Mrs. Perkin’s quilt

Said in another way, if you have a 13 by 13 square, how can you divide it up into the smallest number of smaller squares? Don’t worry, you get to solve it yourself– I’m not including a picture of the solution to that version of the puzzle because there are so many beautiful pictures of solutions to the puzzle when you start with larger and smaller squares. Some are definitely more interesting than others. If you want to start simple, try the 4 by 4 version. I particularly like the look of the solution to the 18 by 18 version.

152 by 152 Mrs. Perkin’s quilt

Maybe you’re wondering where I got all these great pictures of Mrs. Perkin’s quits. And– wait a second– is that the solution to the 152 by 152 version? It sure is– and I got it from one of my favorite math websites, the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. The site is full of awesome visualizations of all kinds of things, from math problems to scans of the human brain. The Mrs. Perkin’s quilts demonstration solves the puzzle for up to a 1,098 by 1,098 square!

Next up, we here at Math Munch are big fans of unusual calculators. Marble calculators, domino calculators… what will we turn up next? Well, here for your strange calculator enjoyment is a water calculator! Check out this video to see how it works:

I might not want to rely on this calculator to do my homework, but it certainly is interesting!

Finally, meet Snap the Turtle! This cute little guy is here to teach you how to make beautiful math art stars using computer programming.

On the website Tynker, Snap can show you how to design a program to make intricate line drawings– and learn something about computer programming at the same time. Tynker’s goal is to teach kids to be programming “literate.” Combine computer programming with a little math and art (and a turtle)– what could be better?

I hope something grabbed your interest this week! Bon appetit!

# Fields Medal, Favorite Numbers, and The Grapes of Math

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch! And, if you’re a student or teacher, welcome to a new school year!

One of the most exciting events in the world of math happened this August– the awarding of the Fields Medal! This award honors young mathematicians who have already done awesome mathematical work and who show great promise for the future. It also only happens every four years, at the beginning of an important math conference called the International Congress of Mathematicians, so it’s a very special occasion when it does!

Maryam Mirzakhani, first woman ever to win a Fields Medal

This year’s award was even more special than usual, though. Not only were there four winners (more than the usual two or three), but one of the winners was a woman!

Now, if you’re like me, you probably heard about the Fields Medal and thought, “There’s no way I’ll understand the math that these Field Medalists do.” But this couldn’t be more wrong! Thanks to these great articles from Quanta Magazine, you can learn a lot about the super-interesting math that the Fields Medalists study– and why they study it.

Manjul Bhargava

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that each Fields Medalist has non-math interests that inspire their mathematical work. Take Manjul, for instance. When he was a kid, his grandfather introduced him to Sanskrit poetry. He was fascinated by the patterns in the rhythms of the poems, and the number patterns that he found inspired him to study the mathematics of number patterns– number theory!

But, don’t just take my word for it– you can read all about Manjul and the others in these great articles! And did I mention that they come with videos about each mathematician?

… What’s your favorite number? Is it 7? If it is, then you’re in good company! Alex polled more than 30,000 people about their favorite number, and the most popular was 7. But why? What’s so special about 7? Here’s why Alex thinks 7 is such a favorite:

Why do you like your favorite number? People gave Alex all kinds of different reasons. One woman said about 3, her favorite number, “3 wishes. On the count of 3. 3 little pigs… great triumvirates!” Alex made these questions the topic of the first chapter of his new book, The Grapes of Math. (Get the reference?) In this book, Alex shares many curious ways that math appears in our world. Did you know that a weird pattern in numbers can be used to catch criminals? Or that the Game of Life, a simple computer program, shares surprisingly many characteristics with real life? These are only a few of the hundreds of topics Alex covers in his book. Whether you’re a math whiz or a newbie, you’ll learn something new on every page.

Alex currently writes about math for The Guardian in a blog called, “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland”— but he also loves and writes about soccer (or futbol, as it’s called in his native Brazil)! He even wrote a few articles for his blog about math and soccer.

Do you have any questions for Alex? (About math, soccer, or their intersection?) Write them here and you might find them featured in our interview with Alex!

Good writing about math is hard to find. If you’ve ever picked up a standard math textbook, you’ll know what I mean. But reading something fascinating, that grabs your interest from the first page and leads you through the most complex ideas like they’re as natural as anything you’ve observed, is a great way to learn. The Grapes of Math and “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland” do just that. Give them a go!

Bon appetit!

# 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:

So, 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.

Sometimes 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.

It 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!