Tag Archives: coloring

Squircles, Coloring Books, and Snowfakes

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Squares and circles are pretty different. Squares are boxy and have their feet firmly on the ground. Circles are round and like to roll all over the place.



Since they’re so different, people have long tried to bridge the gap between squares and circles. There’s an ancient problem called “squaring the circle” that went unsolved for thousands of years. In the 1800s, the gap between squares and circles was explored by Gabriel Lamé. Gabriel invented a family of curves that both squares and circles belong to. In the 20th century, Danish designer Piet Hein gave Lamé’s family of curves the name superellipses and used them to lay out parts of cities. One particular superellipse that’s right in the middle is called a squircle. Squircles have been used to design everything from dinner plates to touchpad buttons.

The space of superellipsoids.

The space of superellipsoids.

Piet had the following to say about the gap between squares and circles:

Things made with straight lines fit well together and save space. And we can move easily — physically or mentally — around things made with round lines. But we are in a straitjacket, having to accept one or the other, when often some intermediate form would be better. … The super-ellipse solved the problem. It is neither round nor rectangular, but in between. Yet it is fixed, it is definite — it has a unity.

"Squaring the Circle" by Troika.

“Squaring the Circle” by Troika.

These circles aren't what they seem to be.

These circles aren’t what they seem to be.

There’s another kind of squircular object that I ran across recently. It’s a sculpture called “Squaring the Circle”, and it was created by a trio of artists known as Troika. Check out the images on this page, and then watch a video of the incredible transformation. You can find more examples of room-sized perspective-changing objects in this article.

Next up: it’s been a snowy week here on the east coast, so I thought I’d share some ideas for a great indoor activity—coloring!

Marshall and Violet.

Marshall and Violet.

Marshall Hampton is a math professor at University of Minnesota, Duluth. Marshall studies n-body problems—a kind of physics problem that goes all the way back to Isaac Newton and that led to the discovery of chaos. He also uses math to study the genes that cause mammals to hibernate. Marshall made a coloring book full of all kinds of lovely mathematical images for his daughter Violet. He’s also shared it with the world, in both pdf and book form. Check it out!

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Inspired by Mashrall’s coloring book, Alex Raichev made one of his own, called Contours. It features contour plots that you can color. Contour plots are what you get when you make outlines of areas that share the same value for a given function. Versions of contour plots often appear on weather maps, where the functions are temperature, atmospheric pressure, or precipitation levels.

Contour plots are useful. Alex shows that they can be beautiful, too!

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And there are even more mathematical patterns to explore in the coloring sheets at Patterns for Colouring.

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Last up, that’s not a typo in this week’s post title. I really do want to share some snowfakes with you—some artificial snowflake models created with math by Janko Gravner and David Griffeath. You can find out more by reading this paper they authored, or just skim it for the lovely images, some of which I’ve shared below.

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I ran across these snowfakes at the Mathematical Imagery page of the American Mathematical Society. There are lots more great math images to explore there.

Bon appetit!

Reflection sheet – Squircles, Coloring Books, and Snowfakes

MOVES, the Tower of Hanoi, and Mathigon

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

MOVESThe Math Munch team just wrapped up attending the first MOVES Conference, which was put on by the Museum of Math in NYC. MOVES is a recreational math conference and stands for Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects. Anna coordinated the Family Activities track at the conference and Paul gave a talk about his imbalance problems. I was just there as an attendee and had a blast soaking up wonderful math from some amazing people!


Who all was there? Some of our math heroes—and familiar faces on Math Munch—like Erik Demaine, Tanya Khovanova, Tim and Tanya Chartier, and Henry Segerman, just to name just a few. I got to meet and learn from many new people, too! Even though I know it’s true, it still surprises me how big and varied the world of math and mathematicians is.


Suzanne Dorée at MOVES.

One of my favorite talks at MOVES was given by Suzanne Dorée of Augsburg College. Su spoke about research she did with a former student—Danielle Arett—about the puzzle known as the Tower of Hanoi. You can try out this puzzle yourself with this online applet. The applet also includes some of the puzzle’s history and even some information about how the computer code for the applet was written.


Danielle Arett

A pice of a Tower of Hanoi graph with three pegs and four disks.

A piece of a Tower of Hanoi graph with three pegs and four disks.

But back to Su and Danielle. If you think of the different Tower of Hanoi puzzle states as dots, and moving a disk as a line connecting two of these dots, then you can make a picture (or graph) of the whole “puzzle space”. Here are some photos of the puzzle space for playing the Tower of Hanoi with four disks. Of course, how big your puzzle space graph is depends on how many disks you use for your puzzle, and you can imagine changing the number of pegs as well. All of these different pictures are given the technical name of Tower of Hanoi graphs. Su and Danielle investigated these graphs and especially ways to color them: how many different colors are needed so that all neighboring dots are different colors?

Images from Su and Danielle's paper. Towers of Hanoi graphs with four pegs.

Images from Su and Danielle’s paper. Tower of Hanoi graphs with four pegs.


Su and Danielle showed that even as the number of disks and pegs grows—and the puzzle graphs get very large and complicated—the number of colors required does not increase quickly. In fact, you only ever need as many colors as you have pegs! Su and Danielle wrote up their results and published them as an article in Mathematics Magazine in 2010.

Today Danielle lives in North Dakota and is an analyst at Hartford Funds. She uses math every day to help people to grow and manage their money. Su teaches at Ausburg College in Minnesota where she carries out her belief “that everyone can learn mathematics.”

Do you have a question for Su or Danielle—about their Tower of Hanoi research, about math more generally, or about their careers? If you do, send them to us in the form below for an upcoming Q&A!

UPDATE: We’re no longer accepting questions for Su and Danielle. Their interview will be posted soon! Ask questions of other math people here.

MathigonLast up, here’s a gorgeous website called Mathigon, which someone shared with me recently. It shares a colorful and sweeping view of different fields of mathematics, and there are some interactive parts of the site as well. There are features about graph theory—the field that Su and Danielle worked in—as well as combinatorics and polyhedra. There’s lots to explore!

Bon appetit!