Tag Archives: art

Squricangle, Magic Angle Sculpture, and …

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

There’s a neat old problem/puzzle that goes like this: make a 3-D shape that could fit snugly through each of three holes—one a square, one a circle, and one a triangle. To make a shape that works for just two holes isn’t so tricky. For example, a cylinder that is just as tall as it is across would fit snugly through a circle hole and a square hole. Can you think of what would work for each of the other two shape combos? What about all three?


Three holes, three shapes…and what’s that over in the corner??

If you’re curious about the answer, you might enjoy this post by Kit Wallace or this page by George Hart or—believe it or not—roundsquaretriangle.com. I don’t know the origin of this puzzle and would love to. I haven’t found any info about it after to poking around the internet for a while. So if you locate any information about the backstory of the squircangle—which is not its real name, just one that I made up—please let us know!

Even though I knew about the square-circle-triangle problem, I was not at all prepared to encounter the solution to the jet-butterfly-dragon problem!


Dragon Butterfly Jet is just one of several “magic angle sculptures” created by artist, chemist, and PhD, and high school dropout John V. Muntean. John writes the following in his Artist Statement:

As a scientist and artist, I am interested in the how perception influences our theory of the universe. … Every 120º of rotation, the amorphous shadows evolve into independent forms. Our scientific interpretation of nature often depends upon our point of view. Perspective matters.

There’s much more to see on John’s website. And you can check out Dragon Butterfly Jet in action in the video below, along with Knight Mermaid Pirate-Ship. I also recommend this video made by John where he demonstrates how his sculpture works himself. It also includes a stop-frame animation of the sculpture being built! So cool.


No, not ellipses…

And finally, what you’ve all been waiting for…


That’s right! My final share of the week is that most outspoken of punctuation marks, the ellipsis. Because often what you don’t say says a whole lot! That’s true when writing a story or some dialogue, and it’s also true in mathematics. Watch: 1+2+3+…+100. See? Pretty neat! Those three dots sure say a mouthful…

The ellipsis is probably my second favorite punctuation mark—after the em dash, of course. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, check out this article about the history and uses—mathematical and otherwise—of the humble ellipsis. Author Cameron Hunt McNabb writes:

Thus the ellipsis has been used to indicate anything from the erroneous to the irrational, and its intrigue lies in resistance to meaning. As long as we have things to say, we will have things to omit.


The very first equals sign, in 1557.

I could go on and on about the ellipsis, just like pi does: 3.1415… But anyway, while we’re on the subject of punctuation, let me point you to one of my favorite sites on the mathematical internet: the Earliest Uses of Various Mathematical Symbols page, maintained by Jeff Miller. Jeff teaches high school math in Florida and also has some other great pages, too, including this one about mathematicians featured on stamps.




A nice visualization of the squircangle by Matt Henderson


Lucea, Fiber Bundles, and Hamilton

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

The Summer Olympics are underway in Brazil. I have loved the Olympics since I was a kid. The opening ceremony is one of my favorite parts—the celebration of the host country’s history and culture, the athletes proudly marching in and representing their homeland. And the big moment when the Olympic cauldron is lit! This year I was just so delighted by the sculpture that acted as the cauldron’s backdrop.

Isn’t that amazing! The title of this enormous metal sculpture is Lucea, and it was created by American sculptor Anthony Howe. You can read about Anthony and how he came to make Lucea for the Olympics in this article. Here’s one quote from Anthony:

“I hope what people take away from the cauldron, the Opening Ceremonies, and the Rio Games themselves is that there are no limits to what a human being can accomplish.”

Here’s another view of Lucea from Anthony’s website:

Lucea is certainly hypnotizing in its own right, but I think it jumped out at me in part because I’ve been thinking a lot about fiber bundles recently. A fiber bundle is a “twist” on a simpler kind of object called a product space. You are familiar with some examples of products spaces. A square is a line “times” a line. A cylinder is a line “times” a circle. And a torus is a circle “times” a circle.


Square, cylinder, and torus.

So, what does it mean to introduce a “twist” to a product space? Well, it means that while every little patch of your object will look like a product, the whole thing gets glued up in some fancy way. So, instead of a cylinder that goes around all normal, we can let the line factor do a flip as it goes around the circle and voila—a Mobius strip!


Now, check out this image:


It’s two Mobius strips stuck together! Does this remind you of Lucea?! Instead of a line “times” a circle that’s been twisted, we have an X shape “times” a circle.

Do you think you could fill up all of space with an infinity of circles? You might try your hand at it. One answer to this puzzle is a wonderful example of a fiber bundle called the Hopf fibration. Just as you can think about a circle as a line plus one extra point to close it up, and a sphere as a plane with one extra point to close it up, the three-sphere is usual three-dimenional space plus one extra point. The Hopf fibration shows that the three-sphere is a twisted product of a sphere “times” a circle. For a really lovely visualization of this fact, check out this video:

That is some tough but also gorgeous mathematics. Since you’ve made it this far in the post, I definitely think you deserve to indulge and maybe rock out a little. And what’s the hottest ticket on Broadway this summer? I hope you’ll enjoy this superb music video about Hamilton!

William Rowan Hamilton, that is. The inventor of quaternions, explorer of Hamiltonian circuits, and reformulator of physics. Brilliant.

citymapHere are a couple of pages of Hamiltonian circuit puzzles. The goal is to visit every dot exactly once as you draw one continuous path. Try them out! Rio, where the Olympics is happening, pops up as a dot in the first one. You might even try your hand at making some Hamiltonian puzzles of your own.

Happy puzzling, and bon appetit!

SET, Ptolemy, and Malin Christersson

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

To set up the punchline: if you haven’t played the card game SET before, do yourself a favor and go try it out now!

(Or if you prefer, here’s a video tutorial.)


Are there any sets to be found here?

(And even if you have played before, go ahead and indulge yourself with a round. You deserve a SET break. 🙂 )

Now, we’ve shared about SET before, but recently there has been some very big SET-related news. Although things have been quieter around Georgia Tech since summer has started, there has been a buzz both here and around the internet about a big breakthrough by Vsevolod Lev, Péter Pál Pach, and Georgia Tech professor Ernie Croot. Together they have discovered a new approach to estimate how big a SET-less collection of SET cards can be.

In SET there are a total of 81 cards, since each card expresses one combination of four different characteristics (shape, color, filling, number) for which there are three possibilities each. That makes 3^4=81 combinations of characteristics. Of these 81 cards, what do you think is the most cards we could lay out without a SET appearing? This is not an easy problem, but it turns out the answer is 20. An even harder problem, though, is asking the same question but for bigger decks where there are five or ten or seventy characteristics—and so 3^5 or 3^10 or 3^70 cards. Finding the exact answer to these larger problems would be very, very hard, and so it would be nice if we could at least estimate how big of a collection of SET-less cards we could make in each case. This is called the cap set problem, and Vsevolod, Péter, and Ernie found a much, much better way to estimate the answers than what was previously known.

To find out more on the background of the cap set problem, check out this “low threshold, high ceiling” article by Michigan grad student Charlotte Chan. And I definitely encourage you to check out this article by Erica Klarreich in Quanta Magazine for more details about the breakthrough and for reactions from the mathematical community. Here’s a choice quote:

Now, however, mathematicians have solved the cap set problem using an entirely different method — and in only a few pages of fairly elementary mathematics. “One of the delightful aspects of the whole story to me is that I could just sit down, and in half an hour I had understood the proof,” Gowers said.

(For further wonderful math articles, you’ll want to visit Erica’s website.)

 Vsevolod  Peter  Ernie
 Charlotte  Erica  Marsha

These are photos of Vsevolod, Péter, Ernie, Charlotte, Erica, and the creator of SET, geneticist Marsha Jean Falco.

Ready for more? Earlier this week, I ran across this animation:


It shows two ways of modeling the motions of the sun and the planets in the sky. On the left is a heliocentric model, which means the sun is at the center. On the right is a geocentric model, which means the earth is at the center.


Around 250 BC, Aristarchus calculated the size of the sun, and decided it was too big to revolve around the earth!

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and that the earth and the planets revolve around the sun. (After all, we call it a “solar system”, don’t we?) But it took a long time for human beings to decide that this is so.

I have to confess: I have a soft spot for the geocentric model. I ran across the animation in a Facebook group of some graduates of St. John’s College, where I studied as an undergrad. We spent a semester or so reading Ptolemy’s Almagest—literally, the “Great Work”—on the geocentric model of the heavens. It is an incredible work of mathematics and of natural science. Ptolemy calculated the most accurate table of chords—a variation on a table of the sine function—that existed in his time and also proved intricate facts about circular motion. For example, here’s a video that shows that the eccentric and epicyclic models of solar motion are equivalent. What’s really remarkable is that not only does Ptolemy’s system account for the motions of the heavenly bodies, it actually gave better predictions of the locations of the planets than Copernicus’s heliocentric system when the latter first debuted in the 1500s. Not bad for something that was “wrong”!

Here are Ptolemy and Copernicus’s ways of explaining how Mars appears to move in the sky:

ptolemy Copernicus_Mars

Maybe you would like to learn more about the history of models of the cosmos? Or maybe you would like tinker with a world-system of your own? You might notice that the circles-on-circles of Ptolemy’s model are just like a spirograph or a roulette. I wonder what would happen if we made the orbit circles in much different proportions?


Malin, tiled hyperbolically.

Now, I was very glad to take this stroll down memory lane back to my college studies, but little did I know that I was taking a second stroll as well: the person who created this great animation, I had run across several other pieces of her work before! Her name is Malin Christersson and she’s a PhD student in math education in Sweden. She is also a computer scientist who previously taught high school and also teaches many people about creating math in GeoGebra. You can try out her many GeoGebra applets here. Malin also has a Tumblr where she posts gifs from the applets she creates.

About a year ago I happened across an applet that lets you create art in the style of artist (and superellipse creator) Piet Mondrian. But it also inverts your art—reflects it across a circle—so that you can view your own work from a totally different perspective. Then just a few months later I delighted in finding another applet where you can tile the hyperbolic plane with an image of your choice. (I used one tiling I produced as my Twitter photo for a while.)



tiling (4)

Me, tiled hyperbolically.

And now come to find out these were both made by Malin, just like the astronomy animation above! And Malin doesn’t stop there, no, no. You should see her fractal applets depicting Julia sets. And her Rolling Hypocycloids and Epicycloids are can’t-miss. (Echoes of Ptolemy there, yes?!)

And please don’t miss out on Malin’s porfolio of applets made in the programming language Processing.

It’s a good feeling to finally put the pieces together and to have a new mathematician, artist, and teacher who inspires me!

I hope you’ll find some inspiration, too. Bon appetit!

Solomon Golomb, Rulers, and 52 Master Pieces

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch.

I was saddened to learn this week of the passing of Solomon Golomb.

Solomon Golomb.

Solomon Golomb.

Can you imagine the world without Tetris? What about the world without GPS or cell phones?

Here at Math Munch we are big fans of pentominoes and polyominoes—we’ve written about them often and enjoy sharing them and tinkering with them. While collections of glued-together squares have been around since ancient times, Solomon invented the term “polyominoes” in 1953, investigated them, wrote about them—including this book—and popularized them with puzzle enthusiasts. But one of Solomon’s outstanding qualities as a mathematician is that he pursued a range of projects that blurred the easy and often-used distinction between “pure” and “applied” mathematics. While polyominoes might seem like just a cute plaything, Solomon’s work with discrete structures helped to pave the way for our digital world. Solomon compiled the first book on digital communications and his work led to such technologies as radio telescopes. You can hear him talk about the applications that came from his work and more in this video:

Here is another video, one that surveys Solomon’s work and life. It’s fast-paced and charming and features Solomon in a USC Trojan football uniform! Here is a wonderful short biography of Solomon written by Elwyn Berlekamp. And how about a tutorial on a 16-bit Fibonacci linear feedback shift register—which Solomon mentions as the work he’s most proud of—in Minecraft!

Another kind of mathematical object that Solomon invented is a Golomb ruler. If you think about it, an ordinary 12-inch ruler is kind of inefficient. I mean, do we really need all of those markings? It seems like we could just do away with the 7″ mark, since if we wanted to measure something 7 inches long, we could just measure from the 1″ mark to the 8″ mark. (Or from 2″ to 9″.) So what would happen if we got rid of redundancies of this kind? How many marks do you actually need in order to measure every length from 1″ to 12″?

An optimal Golomb ruler of order 4.

An optimal Golomb ruler of order 4.

Portrait of Solomon by Ken Knowlton.

Portrait of Solomon by Ken Knowlton.

I was pleased to find that there’s actually a distributed computing project at distributed.net to help find new Golomb Rulers, just like the GIMPS project to find new Mersenne primes. It’s called OGR for “Optimal Golomb Ruler.” Maybe signing up to participate would be a nice way to honor Solomon’s memory. It’s hard to know what to do when someone passionate and talented and inspiring dies. Impossible, even. We can hope, though, to keep a great person’s memory and spirit alive and to help continue their good work. Maybe this week you’ll share a pentomino puzzle with a friend, or check out the sequences on the OEIS that have Solomon’s name attached to them, or host a Tetris or Blokus party—whatever you’re moved to do.

Thinking about Golomb rulers got me to wondering about what other kinds of nifty rulers might exist. Not long ago, at Gathering for Gardner, Matt Parker spoke about a kind of ruler that foresters use to measure the diameter of tree. Now, that sounds like quite the trick—seeing how the diameter is inside of the tree! But the ruler has a clever work-around: marking things off in multiples of pi! You can read more about this kind of ruler in a blog post by Dave Richeson. I love how Dave got inspired and took this “roundabout ruler” idea to the next level to make rulers that can measure area and volume as well. Generalizing—it’s what mathematicians do!

 img_3975  measuringtapes1

I was also intrigued by an image that popped up as I was poking around for interesting rulers. It’s called a seam allowance curve ruler. Some patterns for clothing don’t have a little extra material planned out around the edges so that the clothes can be sewn up. (Bummer, right?) To pad the edges of the pattern is easy along straight parts, but what about curved parts like armholes? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a curved ruler? Ta-da!

A seam allowance curve ruler.

A seam allowance curve ruler.

David Cohen

David Cohen

Speaking of Gathering for Gardner: it was announced recently that G4G is helping to sponsor an online puzzle challenge called 52 Master Pieces. It’s an “armchair puzzle hunt” created by David Cohen, a physician in Atlanta. It will all happen online and it’s free to participate. There will be lots of puzzle to solve, and each one is built around the theme of a “master” of some occupation, like an architect or a physician. Here are a couple of examples:


Notice that both of these puzzles involve pentominoes!

The official start date to the contest hasn’t been announced yet, but you can get a sneak peek of the site—for a price! What’s the price, you ask? You have to solve a puzzle, of course! Actually, you have your choice of two, and each one is a maze. Which one will you pick to solve? Head on over and give it a go!

Maze A

Maze A

Maze B

Maze B

And one last thing before I go: if you’re intrigued by that medicine puzzle, you might really like checking out 100 different ways this shape can be 1/4 shaded. They were designed by David Butler, who teaches in the Maths Learning Centre at the University of Adelaide. Which one do you like best? Can you figure out why each one is a quarter shaded? It’s like art and a puzzle all at once! Can you come up with some quarter-shaded creations of your own? If you do, send them our way! We’d love to see them.

Six ways to quarter the cross pentomino. 94 more await you!

Eight ways to quarter the cross pentomino. 92 more await you!

Bon appetit!

Web Applets, Space Fillers, and Sisters

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Recently I’ve been running across tons of neat, slick math applets. I feel like they all go together. What do they have in common? Maybe you’ll be able to tell me.

First up, you can tinker with some planetary gears. Then try out these chorded polygons. And then how about some threaded lines?

plantearygears chords shapes

Ready for some more? Because with these sorts of visualizations, Dan Anderson has been on fire lately. Dan is a high school math teacher in New York state. He and his students had fifteen minutes of fame last year when they investigated whether or not Double Stuf Oreos really have double the stuf.

Here is Dan’s page on OpenProcessing. (Processing is the computer language in which Dan programs his applets.) And check out the images and gifs on Dan’s Tumblr. Here’s a sampling!

tumblr_nm56rdMlvl1uppablo1_r3_400 tumblr_noqxoi8EsC1uppablo1_400 tumblr_nolvf9dSt61uppablo1_400

Dan also coordinates Daily Desmos, which we’ve feature previously. Check out the latest periodic and “obfuscation” challenges!

That’s a chunk of math to chew on already, but we’re just getting started! Next up, check out the space-filling artwork of John Shier.

doublecircles eyes
 fish  hearts

John’s artwork places onto the canvas shapes of smaller and smaller sizes. Notice that the circles below fill in gaps, but they don’t touch each other, they way circles do in an Apollonian gasket.

circle_prog_1B_AnimeYou can learn more about John’s space-filling shapes on this page and find further details in this paper.

Thanks for making us this sweet banner, John!

Thanks for making us this sweet banner, John!

Last up this week, head to this site to watch an awesome trailer of a film about Julia Robinson. The short clip focuses on Julia’s work on Hilbert’s tenth problem. It includes interviews with a number of people who knew Julia, including her sister Constance Reid. Constance wrote extensively about mathematics and mathematicians. I’ve read her biography of Hilbert and can highly recommend it. You can read more about Julia and Constance here and here.

Julia Robinson

Julia Robinson

Julia's sister, Constance Reid

Julia’s sister, Constance Reid

Julia and Constance as young girls.

Julia and Constance as young girls.

You might enjoy visiting the site of the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival. Check to see if a festival will be hosted in your area sometime soon, or find out how you can run one yourself!

With May wrapped up and June getting started, I hope you have a lot of math to look forward to this summer. Bon appetit!

Pi Digit, Pi Patterns, and Pi Day Anthem


Painting by Renée Othot for Simon Plouffe’s birthday.

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

It’s here—the Pi Day of the Century happens on Saturday: 3-14-15!

How will you celebrate? You might check to see if there are any festivities happening in your area. There might be an event at a library, museum, school, or university near you.

(Here are some pi day events in NYC, Baltimore, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, and Charlotte.)


John Conway at the pi recitation contest in Princeton.

John Conway at the pi recitation contest in Princeton.

There’s a huge celebration here in Princeton—in part because Pi Day is also Albert Einstein’s birthday, and Albert lived in Princeton for the last 22 years of his life. One event involves kids reciting digits of pi and and is hosted by John Conway and his son, a two-time winner of the contest. I’m looking forward to attending! But as has been noted, memorizing digits of pi isn’t the most mathematical of activities. As Evelyn Lamb relays,

I do feel compelled to point out that besides base 10 being an arbitrary way of representing pi, one of the reasons I’m not fond of digit reciting contests is that, to steal an analogy I read somewhere, memorizing digits of pi is to math as memorizing the order of letters in Robert Frost’s poems is to literature. It’s not an intellectually meaningful activity.

I haven’t memorized very many digits of pi, but I have memorized a digit of pi that no one else has. Ever. In the history of the world. Probably no one has ever even thought about this digit of pi.

And you can have your own secret digit, too—all thanks to Simon Plouffe‘s amazing formula.


Simon’s formula shows that pi can be calculated chunk by chunk in base 16 (or hexadecimal). A single digit of pi can be plucked out of the number without calculating the ones that come before it.

Wikipedia observes:

The discovery of this formula came as a surprise. For centuries it had been assumed that there was no way to compute the nth digit of π without calculating all of the preceding n − 1 digits.

Check out some of Simon's math art!

Check out some of Simon’s math art!

Simon is a mathematician who was born in Quebec. In addition to his work on the digits of irrational numbers, he also helped Neil Sloane with his Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, which soon online and became the OEIS (previously). Simon is currently a Trustee of the OEIS Foundation.

There is a wonderful article by Simon and his colleagues David Bailey, Jonathan Borwein, and Peter Borwein called The Quest for Pi. They describe the history of the computation of digits of pi, as well as a description of the discovery of their digit-plucking formula.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most digits that someone has memorized and recited is 67,890. Unofficial records go up to 100,000 digit. So just to be safe, I’ve used an algorithm by Fabrice Bellard based on Simon’s formula to calculate the 314159th digit of pi. (Details here and here.) No one in the world has this digit of pi memorized except for me.

Ready to hear my secret digit of pi? Lean in and I’ll whisper it to you.

The 314159th digit of pi is…7. But let’s keep that just between you and me!

And just to be sure, I used this website to verify the 314159th digit. You can use the site to try to find any digit sequence in the first 200 million digits of pi.

Aziz and Peter's patterns.

Aziz & Peter’s patterns.

Next up: we met Aziz Inan in last week’s post. This week, in honor of Pi Day, check out some of the numerical coincidences Aziz has discovered in the early digits in pi. Aziz and his colleague Peter Osterberg wrote an article about their findings. By themselves, these observations are nifty little patterns. Maybe you’ll find some more of your own. (This kind of thing reminds me of the Strong Law of Small Numbers.) As Aziz and Peter note at the end of the article, perhaps the study of such little patterns will one day help to show that pi is a normal number.

And last up this week, to get your jam on as Saturday approaches, here’s the brand new Pi Day Anthem by the recently featured John Sims and the inimitable Vi Hart.

Bon appetit!

SquareRoots, Concave States, and Sea Ice

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

The most epic Pi Day of the century will happen in just a few weeks: 3/14/15! I hope you’re getting ready. To help you get into the spirit, check out these quilts.

American Pi.

American Pi.

African American Pi.

African American Pi.

There’s an old joke that “pi is round, not square”—a punchline to the formula for the area of a circle. But in these quilts, we can see that pi really can be square! Each quilt shows the digits of pi in base 3. The quilts are a part of a project called SquareRoots by artist and mathematician John Sims.

John Sims.

John Sims.

There’s lots more to explore and enjoy on John’s website, including a musical interpretation of pi and some fractal trees that he has designed. John studied mathematics as an undergrad at Antioch College and has pursued graduate work at Wesleyan University. He even created a visual math course for artists when he taught at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida.

I enjoyed reading several articles (1, 2, 3, 4) about John and his quilts, as well as this interview with John. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from it, in response to “How do you begin a project?”

It can happen in two ways. I usually start with an object, which motivates an idea. That idea connects to other objects and so on, and, at some point, there is a convergence where idea meets form. Or sometimes I am fascinated by an object. Then I will seek to abstract the object into different spatial dimensions.


Cellular Forest and Square Root of a Tree, by John Sims.

You can find more of John’s work on his YouTube channel. Check out this video, which features some of John’s music and an art exhibit he curated called Rhythm of Structure.

Next up: Some of our US states are nice and boxy—like Colorado. (Or is it?) Other states have very complicated, very dent-y shapes—way more complicated than the shapes we’re used to seeing in math class.

Which state is the most dent-y? How would you decide?


West Virginia is pretty dent-y. By driving “across” it, you can pass through many other states along the way.

The mathematical term for dent-y is “concave”. One way you might try to measure the concavity of a state is to see how far outside of the state you can get by moving in a straight line from one point in it to another. For example, you can drive straight from one place in West Virginia to another, and along the way pass through four other states. That’s pretty crazy.

But is it craziest? Is another state even more concave? That’s what this study set out to investigate. Click through to find out their results. And remember that this is just one way to measure how concave a state is. A different way of measuring might give a different answer.

Awesome animal kingdom gerrymandering video!

Awesome animal kingdom gerrymandering video!

This puzzle about the concavity of states is silly and fun, but there’s more here, too. Thinking about the denty-ness of geographic regions is very important to our democracy. After all, someone has to decide where to draw the lines. When regions and districts are carved out in a way that’s unfair to the voters and their interests, that’s called gerrymandering.

Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe.

To find out more about the process of creating congressional districts, you can listen to a talk by Karen Saxe, a math professor at Macalester College. Karen was a part of a committee that worked to draw new congressional districts in Minnesota after the 2010 US Census. (Karen speaks about compactness measures starting here.)

Recently I ran across an announcement for a conference—a conference that was all about the math of sea ice! I never grow tired of learning new and exciting ways that math connects with the world. Check out this video featuring Kenneth Golden, a leading mathematician in the study of sea ice who works at the University of Utah. I love the line from the video: “People don’t usually think about mathematics as a daring occupation.” Ken and his team show that math can take you anywhere that you can imagine.

Bon appetit!

Reflection sheet – SquareRoots, Concave States, and Sea Ice