Tag Archives: building

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


Tangent Spaces, Transplant Matches, and Golyhedra

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

You might remember our post on Tilman Zitzmann’s project called Geometry Daily. If you haven’t seen it before, go check it out now! It will help you to appreciate Lawrie Cape’s work, which both celebrates and extends the Geometry Daily project. Lawrie’s project is called Tangent Spaces. He makes Tilman’s geometry sketches move!

A box of rays, by Tilman

A box of rays, by Tilman

A box of rays, by Lawrie.

A box of rays, by Lawrie

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Not only do Lawrie’s sketches move, they’re also interactive—you can click on them, and they’ll move in response. All kinds of great mathematical questions can come up when you set a diagram in motion. For instance, I’m wondering what moon patterns are possible to make by dragging my mouse around—and if any are impossible. What questions come up for you as you browse Tangent Spaces?

Next up, Dorry Segev and Sommer Gentry are a doctor and a mathematician. They collaborated on a new system to help sick people get kidney transplants. They are also dance partners and husband and wife. This video shares their amazing, mathematical, and very human story.

Dorry and Sommer’s work involves building graphs, kind of like the game that Paul posted about last week. Thinking about the two of them together has been fun for me. You can read more about the life-saving power of Kidney Paired Donation on optimizedmatch.com.

Last up this week, here’s some very fresh math—discovered in the last 24 hours! Joe O’Rourke is one of my favorite mathematicians. (previously) Joe recently asked whether a golyhedron exists. What’s a golyhedron? It’s the 3D version of a golygon. What’s a golygon? Glad you asked. It’s a grid polygon that has side lengths that grow one by one, from 1 up to some number. Here, a diagram will help:

The smallest golygon. It has sides of lengths 1 through 8.

The smallest golygon. It has sides of lengths 1 through 8.

A golyhedron is like this, but in 3D: a grid shape that has one face of each area from 1 up to some number. After tinkering around some with this new shape idea, Joe conjectured that no golyhedra exist. It’s kind of like coming up with the idea of a unicorn, but then deciding that there aren’t any real ones. But Joseph wasn’t sure, so he shared his golyhedron shape idea on the internet at MathOverflow. Adam P. Goucher read the post, and decided to build a golyhedron himself.

And he found one!

The first ever golyhedron, by Adam P. Goucher

The first ever golyhedron, by Adam P. Goucher

Adam wrote all about the process of discovering his golyhedron in this blog post. I recommend it highly.

And the story and the math don’t stop there! New questions arise—is this the smallest golyhedron? Are there types of sequences of face sizes that can’t be constructed—for instance, what about a sequence of odd numbers? Curious and creative people, new discoveries, and new questions—that’s how math grows.

If this story was up your alley, you might enjoy checking out the story of holyhedra in this previous post.

Bon appetit!

Light Bulbs, Lanterns, and Lights Out

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!


Edison with his light bulb.

On this day in 1880, Thomas Edison was given a patent for his most famous bright idea—the light bulb.

Edison once said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration”—a good reminder that putting in some work is important both in math and in life. He also said, “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.” A humbling thought. Also, based on that quote, it sounds like Edison might have had a use for permilles or even permyraids in addition to percents!

Mike's octahedron.

Mike’s octahedron-in-a-light-buld.

In celebration of this illustrious anniversary, I’d like to share some light mathematical fare relating to, well, light bulbs. For starters, J. Mike Rollins of North Carolina has created each of the Platonic solids inside of light bulbs, ship-in-a-bottle style. Getting just the cube to work took him the better part of twelve hours! Talk about perspiration. Mike has also made a number of lovely Escher-inspired woodcuts. Check ’em out!

Evelyn's Schwartz lantern.

Evelyn’s Schwartz lantern.

Next up is a far-out example from calculus that’s also a good idea for an art project. It’s called the Schwartz lantern. I found out about this amazing object last fall when Evelyn Lamb tweeted and blogged about it.

The big idea of calculus is that we can find exact answers to tough problems by setting up a pattern of approximations that get better and better and then—zoop! take the process to its logical conclusion at infinity. But there’s a catch: you have to be careful about how you set up your pattern!

A "nicely" triangulated cylinder.

A “nicely” triangulated cylinder.

For example, if you take a cylinder and approximate its surface with a bunch of triangles carefully, you’ll end up with a surface that matches the cylinder in shape and size. But if you go about the process in a different way, you can end up with a surface that stays right near the cylinder but that has infinite area. That’s the Schwartz lantern, first proposed by Karl Hermann Amandus Schwarz of Cauchy-Schwartz fame. The infinite area happens because of all the crinkles that this devilish pattern creates. For some delightful technical details about the lantern’s construction, check out Evelyn’s post and this article by Conan Wu.

Maybe you’ll try folding a Schwartz lantern of your own. There’s a template and instructions on Conan’s blog to get you started. You’ll be glowing when you finish it up—especially if you submit a photo of it to our Readers’ Gallery. Even better, how about a video? You could make the internet’s first Schwartz lantern short film!

Robert Torrence and his Lights Out puzzle.

Robert and his Lights Out puzzle.

At the MOVES Conference last fall, Bruce Torrence of Randolf-Macon College gave a talk about the math of Lights Out. Lights Out is a puzzle—a close relative of Ray Ray—that’s played on a square grid. When you push one of the buttons in the grid it switches on or off, and its neighbors do, too. Bruce and his son Robert created an extension of this puzzle to some non-grid graphs. Here’s an article about their work and here’s an applet on the New York Times website where you can play Lights Out on the Peterson graph, among others. You can even create a Lights Out puzzle of your own! If it’s more your style, you can try a version of the original game called All Out on Miniclip.

The original Lights Out handheld game from 1995.

The original Lights Out handheld game from 1995.

There’s a huge collection of Lights Out resources on Jaap’s Puzzle Page (previously), including solution strategies, variations, and some great counting problems. Lights Out and Ray Ray are both examples of what’s called a “sigma-plus game” in the mathematical literature. Just as a bonus, there’s this totally other game called Light Up. I haven’t solved a single puzzle yet, but my limitations shouldn’t stop you from trying. Perspiration!

All this great math work might make you hungry, so…bon appetit!

Partial Cubes, Open Cubes, and Spidrons

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Recently the videos that Paul and I made about the Yoshimoto Cube got shared around a bit on the web. That got me to thinking again about splitting cubes apart, because the Yoshimoto Cube is made up of two pieces that are each half of a cube.

A part of Wall Drawing #601 by Sol LeWitt

A part of Wall Drawing #601
by Sol LeWitt

A friend of mine once shared with me some drawings of cubes by the artist Sol LeWitt. The cubes were drawn as solid objects, but parts of them were cut away and removed. It was fun trying to figure out what fraction of a cube remained.

On the web, I found a beautiful image that Sol made called Wall Drawing #601. In the clipping of it to the left, I see 7/8 of a cube and 3/4 of a cube. Do you? You can view the whole of this piece by Sol on the website of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation.

The Cube Vinco by Vaclav Obsivac.

The Cube Vinco by Vaclav Obsivac.

There are other kinds of objects that break a cube into pieces in this way, like this tricky puzzle by Vaclav Obsivac and this “shaved” Rubik’s cube modification. Maybe you’ll design a cube dissection of your own!

As I further researched Sol LeWitt’s art, I found that he had investigated partial cubes in other ways, too. My favorite of Sol’s tinkerings is the sculpture installation called “Variations of Incomplete Cubes“. You can check out this piece of artwork on the SFMOMA site, as well as in the video below.

In the video, a diagram appears that Sol made of all of the incomplete open cubes. He carefully listed out and arranged these pictures to make sure that he had found them all—a very mathematical task. It reminds me of the list of rectangle subdivisions I wrote about in this post.


Sol’s diagram got me to thinking and making: what other shapes might have interesting “incomplete open” variations? I started working on tetrahedra. I think I might try to find and make them all. How about you?

Two open tetrahedra I made. Can you find some more?

Two open tetrahedra I made. Can you find some more?

Finally, as I browsed Google Images for “half cube”, one image in particular jumped out at me.


What are those?!?!

Dániel's original spidron from 1979

Dániel’s original spidron from 1979

These lovely rose-shaped objects are called spidrons—or more precisely, they appear to be half-cubes built out of fold-up spidrons. What are spidrons? I had never heard of them, but there’s one pictured to the right and they have their own Wikipedia article.

The first person who modeled a spidron was Dániel Erdély, a Hungarian designer and artist. Dániel started to work with spidrons as a part of a homework assignment from Ernő Rubik—that’s right, the man who invented the Rubik’s cube.

A cube with spidron faces.

A cube with spidron faces.

Two halves of an icosahedron.

Two halves of an icosahedron.

A hornflake.

A hornflake.

Here are two how-to videos that can help you to make a 3D spidron—the first step to making lovely shapes like those pictured above. The first video shows how to get set up with a template, and the second is brought to you by Dániel himself! Watching these folded spidrons spiral and spring is amazing. There’s more to see and read about spidrons in this Science News article and on Dániel’s website.

And how about a sphidron? Or a hornflake—perhaps a cousin to the flowsnake? So many cool shapes!

To my delight, I found that Dániel has created a video called Yoshimoto Spidronised—bringing my cube splitting adventure back around full circle. You’ll find it below. Bon appetit!

Reflection Sheet – Partial Cubes, Open Cubes, and Spidrons

MoMA, Pop-Up Books, and A Game of Numbers

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Thank you so much to everyone who participated in our Math Munch “share campaign” over the past two weeks. Over 200 shares were reported and we know that even more sharing happened “under the radar”. Thanks for being our partners in sharing great math experiences and curating the mathematical internet.

Of course, we know that the sharing will continue, even without a “campaign”. Thanks for that, too.

All right, time to share some math. On to the post!

N_JoshiTo kick things off, you might like to check out our brand-new Q&A with Nalini Joshi. A choice quote from Nalini:

In contrast, doing math was entirely different. After trying it for a while, I realized that I could take my time, try alternative beginnings, do one step after another, and get to glimpse all kinds of possibilities along the way.

By Philippe Decrauzat.

By Philippe Decrauzat.

I hope the math munches I share with you this week will help you to “glimpse all kinds of possibilities,” too!

Recently I went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. (Warning: don’t confuse MoMA with MoMath!) On display was an exhibit called Abstract Generation. You can view the pieces of art in the exhibit online.

As I browsed the galley, the sculptures by Tauba Auerbach particularly caught my eye. Here are two of the sculptures she had on display at MoMA:

CRI_244599 CRI_244605

Just looking at them, these sculptures are definitely cool. However, they become even cooler when you realize that they are pop-up sculptures! Can you see how the platforms that the sculptures sit on are actually the covers of a book? Neat!

Here’s a video that showcases all of Tauba’s pop-ups in their unfolding glory. Why do you think this series of sculptures is called [2,3]?

This idea of pop-up book math intrigued me, so I started searching around for some more examples. Below you’ll find a video that shows off some incredible geometric pop-ups in action. To see how you can make a pop-up sculpture of your own, check out this how-to video. Both of these videos were created by paper engineer Peter Dahmen.

Taura Auerbach.

Tauba Auerbach.

Tauba got me thinking about math and pop-up books, but there’s even more to see and enjoy on her website! Tauba’s art gives me new ways to connect with and reimagine familiar structures. Remember our post about the six dimensions of color? Tauba created a book that’s a color space atlas! The way that Tauba plays with words in these pieces reminds me both of the word art of Scott Kim and the word puzzles of Douglas Hofstadter. Some of Tauba’s ink-on-paper designs remind me of the work of Chloé Worthington. And Tauba’s piece Componants, Numbers gives me some new insight into Brandon Todd Wilson’s numbers project.

0108 MM MM-Tauba-Auerbach-large

This piece by Tauba is a Math Munch fave!

For me, both math and art are all about playing with patterns, images, structures, and ideas. Maybe that’s why math and art make such a great combo—because they “play” well together!

Speaking of playing, I’d like to wrap up this week’s post by sharing a game about numbers I ran across recently. It’s called . . . A Game of Numbers! I really like how it combines the structure of arithmetic operations with the strategy of an escape game. A Game of Numbers was designed by a software developer named Joseph Michels for a “rapid” game competition called Ludum Dare. Here’s a Q&A Joseph did about the game.

A Game of Numbers.

A Game of Numbers.

If you enjoy A Game of Numbers, maybe you’ll leave Joseph a comment on his post about the game’s release or drop him an email. And if you enjoy A Game of Numbers, then you’d probably enjoy checking out some of the other games on our games page.

Bon appetit!

PS Tauba also created a musical instrument called an auerglass that requires two people to play. Whooooooa!

Reflection Sheet – MoMA, Pop-Up Books, and A Game of Numbers

Coasts, Clueless Puzzles, and Beach Math Art

summerAh, summertime. If it’s as hot where you are as it is here in New York, I bet this beach looks great to you, too. A huge expanse of beach all to myself sounds wonderful… And that makes me wonder – how much coastline is there in the whole world?

Interestingly, the length of the world’s coastline is very much up for debate. Just check out this Wikipedia page on coastlines, and you’ll notice that while the CIA calculates the total coastline of the world to be 356,000 kilometers, the World Resources Institute measures it to be 1,634,701! What???

Measuring the length of a coastline isn’t as simple as it might seem, because of something called the Coastline Paradox. This paradox states that as the ruler you use to measure a coastline gets shorter, the length of the coastline gets longer – so that if you used very, very tiny ruler, a coastline could be infinitely long! This excellent video by Veritasium explains the problem very well:

2000px-KochFlakeAs Vertitasium says, many coastlines are fractals, like the Koch snowflake shown at left – never-ending, infinitely complex patterns that are created by repeating a simple process over and over again. In this case, that simple process is the waves crashing against the shore and wearing away the sand and rock. If coastlines can be infinitely long when you measure them with the tiniest of rulers, how to geographers measure coastline? By choosing a unit of measurement, making some approximations, and deciding what is worth ignoring! And, sometimes, agreeing to disagree.

Need something to read at the beach, and maybe something puzzle-y to ponder? Check out this interesting article by four mathematicians and computer scientists, including James Henle, a professor in Massachusetts. They’ve invented a Sudoku-like puzzle they call a “Clueless Puzzle,” because, unlike Sudoku, their puzzle never gives any number clues.

Clueless puzzleHow does this work? These puzzles use shapes instead of numbers to provide clues. Here’s an example from the paper: Place the numbers 1 through 6 in the cells of the figure at right so that no digit appears more than once in a row or column AND so that the numbers in each region add to the same sum. The paper not only walks you through the solution to this problem, but also talks about how the mathematicians came up with the idea for the puzzles and studied them mathematically. It’s very interesting – I recommend you read it!

Finally, if you’re not much of a beach reader, maybe you’d like to make some geometrically-inspired beach art! Check out this land art by artist Andy Goldsworthy:

Andy Goldsworthy 1
Andy Goldsworthy 2

Or make one of these!

Happy summer, and bon appetit!

Prime Gaps, Mad Maths, and Castles

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

It has been a thrilling last month in the world of mathematics. Several new proofs about number patterns have been announced. Just to get a flavor for what it’s all about, here are some examples.

I can make 15 by adding together three prime numbers: 3+5+7. I can do this with 49, too: 7+11+31. Can all odd numbers be written as three prime numbers added together? The Weak Goldbach Conjecture says that they can, as long as they’re bigger than five. (video)

11 and 13 are primes that are only two apart. So are 107 and 109. Can we find infinitely many such prime pairs? That’s called the Twin Prime Conjecture. And if we can’t, are there infinitely many prime pairs that are at most, say, 100 apart? (video, with a song!)

Harald Helfgott

Harald Helfgott

Yitang "Tom" Zhang

Yitang “Tom” Zhang

People have been wondering about these questions for hundreds of years. Last month, Harald Helfgott showed that the Weak Goldbach Conjecture is true! And Yitang “Tom” Zhang showed that there are infinitely many prime pairs that are at most 70,000,000 apart! You can find lots of details about these discoveries and links to even more in this roundup by Evelyn Lamb.

What’s been particularly fabulous about Tom’s result about gaps between primes is that other mathematicians have started to work together to make it even better. Tom originally showed that there are an infinite number of prime pairs that are at most 70,000,000 apart. Not nearly as cute as being just two apart—but as has been remarked, 70,000,000 is a lot closer to two than it is to infinity! That gap of 70,000,000 has slowly been getting smaller as mathematicians have made improvements to Tom’s argument. You can see the results of their efforts on the polymath project. As of this writing, they’ve got the gap size narrowed down to 12,006—you can track the decreasing values down the page in the H column. So there are infinitely many pairs of primes that are at most 12,006 apart! What amazing progress!

Two names that you’ll see in the list of contributors to the effort are Andrew Sutherland and Scott Morrison. Andrew is a computational number theorist at MIT and Scott has done research in knot theory and is at the Australian National University. They’ve improved arguments and sharpened figures to lower the prime gap value H. They’ve contributed by doing things like using a hybrid Schinzel/greedy (or “greedy-greedy”) sieve. Well, I know what a sieve is and what a greedy algorithm is, but believe me, this is very complicated stuff that’s way over my head. Even so, I love getting to watch the way that these mathematicians bounce ideas off each other, like on this thread.

Andrew Sutherland

Andrew Sutherland

Click through to see Andrew next to an amazing Zome creation!

Andrew. Click this!

Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison

Andrew and Scott have agreed to answer some of your questions about their involvement in this research about prime gaps and their lives as mathematicians. I know I have some questions I’m curious about! You can submit your questions in the form below:

I can think of only two times in my life where I was so captivated by mathematics in the making as I am by this prime gaps adventure. Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was on the fringe of my awareness when it came out in 1993—its twentieth anniversary of his proof just happened, in fact. The result still felt very new and exciting when I read Fermat’s Enigma a couple of years later. Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture made headlines just after I moved to New York City seven years ago. I still remember reading a big article about it in the New York Times, complete with a picture of a rabbit with a grid on it.

This work on prime gaps is even more exciting to me than those, I think. Maybe it’s partly because I have more mathematical experience now, but I think it’s mostly because lots of people are helping the story to unfold and we can watch it happen!

fig110u2bNext up, I ran across a great site the other week when I was researching the idea of a “cut and slide” process. The site is called Mad Maths and the page I landed on was all about beautiful dissections of simple shapes, like circles and squares. I’ve picked out one that I find especially charming to feature here, but you might enjoy seeing them all. The site also contains all kinds of neat puzzles and problems to try out. I’m always a fan of congruent pieces problems, and these paper-folding puzzles are really tricky and original. (Or maybe, origaminal!) You’ll might especially like them if you liked Folds.

Christian's applet displaying the original four-room castle.

Christian’s applet displaying the original four-room castle.

Finally, we previously posted about Matt Parker’s great video problem about a princess hiding in a castle. Well, Christian Perfect of The Aperiodical has created an applet that will allow you to explore this problem—plus, it’ll let you build and try out other castles for the princess to hide in. Super cool! Will I ever be able to find the princess in this crazy star castle I designed?!

Crazy star castle!

My crazy star castle!

And as summer gets into full swing, the other kind of castle that’s on my mind is the sandcastle. Take a peek at these photos of geometric sandcastles by Calvin Seibert. What shapes can you find? Maybe Calvin’s creations will inspire your next beach creation!

Bon appetit!

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