Tag Archives: escher

Making Pi, Transcending Pi, and Cookies

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch– and happy Pi Day!

What does pi look like? The first 10,000 digits of pi, each digit 0 through 9 assigned a different color.

You probably know some pretty cool things about the number pi. Perhaps you know that pi has quite a lot to do with circles. Maybe you know that the decimal expansion for pi goes on and on, forever and ever, without repeating. Maybe you know that it’s very likely that any string of numbers– your birthday, phone number, all the birthdays of everyone you know listed in a row, followed by all their phone numbers, ANYTHING– can be found in the decimal expansion of pi.

But did you know that pi can be approximated by dropping needles on a piece of paper? Well, it can! If you drop a needle again and again on a lined piece of paper, and the needle is the same length as the distance between the lines, the probably that the needle lands on a line is two divided by pi. This experiment is called Buffon’s needle, after the French naturalist Buffon.

If the angle the needle makes with the lines is in the gray area (like the red needle’s angle is), it will cross the line. If the angle isn’t, it won’t. The possible angles trace out a circle. The closer the center of the needle (or center of the circle) is to the line, the larger the gray area– and the higher the probability of the needle hitting the line.

This may seem strange to you– but if you think about how the needle hitting a line has a lot to do with the distance between the middle of the needle and the nearest line and the angle it makes with the lines, maybe you’ll start to think about circles… and then you’ll get a clue about the connection between this experiment and pi. Working out this probability exactly requires some pretty advanced mathematics. (Feeling ambitious? Read about the calculation here.) But, you can get some great experimental results using this Buffon’s needle applet.

Click on the picture to try the applet.

Click on the picture to try the applet.

I had the applet drop 500 needles. Then, the applet used the fact that the probability of the needle hitting a line should be two divided by pi and the probability it measured to calculate an approximation for pi. It got… well, you can see in the picture. Pretty close, right?

Here’s another thing you might not know: pi is a transcendental number. Sounds trippy– but, like some other famous numbers with letter names, like e, pi can never be the solution to an algebraic equation involving whole numbers. That means that no matter what equation you give me– no matter how large the exponent, how many negatives you toss in, how many times you multiply or divide by a whole number– pi will never, ever be a solution. Maybe this doesn’t sound amazing to you. If not, check out this video from Numberphile about transcendental numbers. Numbers like pi and e don’t do mathematical things we’re used to numbers doing… and it’s pretty weird.

Still curious about transcendental numbers? Here’s a page listing the fifteen most famous transcendental numbers. My favorite? Definitely the fifth, Liouville’s number, which has a 1 in each consecutive factorial numbered place.

Escher cookies 1Finally, maybe you don’t like pi. Maybe you like cookies instead. Lucky for you, you can do many mathematical things with cookies, too. Like make cookie tessellations! This mathematical artist and baker made cookie cutters in the shapes of tiles from Escher tessellations and used them to make mathematical cookie puzzles. Beautiful, and certainly delicious.

If you happen to have a 3D printer, you can make your own Escher cookie cutters. Here’s a link to print out the lizard cutter. If you don’t have a 3D printer, you could try printing out a 2D image of an Escher tessellation and tracing a tile onto a sheet of paper. Cut out the tile, roll out your dough, and slice around the outside of the tile to make your cookies. If you do it right, you shouldn’t have to waste any dough…

Here’s hoping you eat some pi or cookies on pi day! 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!

Isomorphisms in Five, Parquet Deformations, and POW!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Here’s a catchy little video. It’s called “Isomorphisms in Five.” Can you figure out why? The note posted below the video says:

An isomorphism is an underlying structure that unites outwardly different mathematical expressions. What underlying structure do these figures share? What other isomorphisms of this structure will you discover?

One of the reasons I LOVE this video is because I really like how the shapes change with the music– which is played in a very interesting time signature. I also love how you can learn a lot about the different growing shape patterns by comparing them. Watch how they grow as the video flips from pattern to pattern. What do you notice? What does the music tell you about their growth?

This video is by a math educator from North Carolina named Stuart Jeckel. The only thing written about him on his “About” page is, “The Art of Math”– so he’s a bit of a mystery! He has three more beautiful videos, all of which present little puzzles for you to solve. Check them out!

(Five-four isn’t a common time-signature for music, but it makes some great pieces. Check out this particularly awesome one. Anyone want to try making a growing shape pattern video to this tune?)


Here is an example of one of my favorite types of geometric patterns– the parquet deformation. To make one, you start with a tessellation. Then you change it- very gradually- until you’ve made a completely different tessellation that’s connected by many tiny steps to the original one.

I love to draw them. It’s challenging, but full of surprises. I never know what it’s going to look like in the end.

2012_10_31-par5Want to try making your own? Check out this site by the professors/architects Tuğrul Yazar and Serkan Uysal. They had one of their classes map out how some different parquet deformations are made. They mostly used computers, but you could follow their instructions by hand, if you like. The image above is a map for the first deformation I showed.

Click on this link to see some awesome deformations made out of tiles. Aren’t they beautiful? And here’s one made by mathematical artist Craig Kaplan. It has a great fractal quality to it:


Finally, here’s something I’ve been meaning to share with you for ages! Do you ever crave a good puzzle and aren’t sure where to find one? Look no farther than the Saint Ann’s School Problem of the Week! Each week, math teacher Richard Mann writes a new awesome problem and posts it on this website. Here’s this week’s problem:

For November 26, 2013– In the picture below, find the shaded right triangle marked A, the equilateral triangle marked B and the striped regular hexagon marked C. Six students make the following statements about the picture below: Anne says “I can find an equilateral triangle three times the area of B.”  Ben says I can find an equilateral triangle four times the area of B.” Carol says, “I can find a find a right triangle triple the area of A.” Doug says, “I can find a right triangle five times the area of A.” Eloise says, “I can find a regular hexagon double the area of C.” Frank says, “I can find a regular hexagon three times the area of C.” Which students are undoubtedly mistaken?

30- 60-90

If you solve this week’s problem, send us a solution!

Bon appetit!

TesselManiac, Zeno’s Paradox, and Platonic Realms

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Before we begin, we’d like to thank all of you who have checked out the site in the past week. Since we’ve kicked off our share campaign, we’ve had so many new visitors and heard from many of them, too! Reading your feedback – whether a recommendation, some praise, a question, or just a brief, “Hello!” – brings us great joy and helps us to know that you all are out there.

Whether you’re a regular reader or visiting the site for the first time, we’d like to ask you for a little favor. If you see some math you like, share it with someone who you think would like it, too! Do you love the burst of excitement that you get from reading about a new mathematical idea, seeing an original piece of math artwork, or trying out a new game? Do you know someone who would love that, too? Then tell them about Math Munch – we’d love to spread the joy.

If you enjoy Math Munch, join in our “share campaign” this week.

You can read more about the share campaign here. There are lots of ways to participate, and you can let us know about your sharing through this form. We’d love to see the share total rise up to 1000 over the course of the next week.

Now for the post!


Lee boxThis beautiful tessellated wooden box was made by computer scientist and mathematical artist Kevin Lee. I met Kevin two weeks ago at the MOVES conference (which Justin and Paul have both written about already). Kevin teaches computer science at Normandale Community College in Minnesota. He makes woodcut tessellations (which won an award for the “Best Textile, Sculpture, or Other Medium” at the Joint Mathematics Meetings art exhibition this year!). He’s also used a combination of his knowledge of computer science and his love of Escher-type tessellations to make software that helps you create tessellations. His new software, TesselManiac!, is due out soon (watch this short movie Kevin made about it for the Bridges conference), but you can download an older version of the software here and play a preview version of The Flipping Tile Game.

tesselmaniac pictures

To play this game, you must fill in an outline of a tessellation with the piece given. You can use any of four symmetry motions – translation (or shift), rotation, reflection, or glide reflection (which reflects the tile and then translates it along a line parallel to the line of reflection). You get points for each correct tile placed (and lose points if you have to delete). Translations are the simplest, and only give you 5 points each. Reflections are the most difficult – you get 20 points for each one used!

dot to dotWhile you’re downloading The Flipping Tile Game, try one of Kevin’s Dot-to-Dot puzzles. These are definitely not your typical dot-to-dot. Only the portion of the image corresponding to one tile in the tessellation is numbered. Once you figure out the shape of that single tile, you have to figure out how to number the rest of the puzzle!

Lucky for us, Kevin has agreed to answer some questions about his life and work as a math artist and computer scientist. Leave a question for Kevin here. (We’ll take questions for the next two weeks.)

tortoiseI’ve recently been thinking about a paradox that has puzzled mathematicians for centuries. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s one of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno‘s paradoxes of motion, and it goes like this: Achilles (a really fast Greek hero) and a tortoise are going to run a race. Achilles agrees to give the tortoise a head-start, because the tortoise is so slow. Achilles then starts to run. But as Achilles catches up with the tortoise, the tortoise moves a little further. So the tortoise is still ahead. And as Achilles moves to catch up again, the tortoise moves even further! Sounds like Achilles will never catch up to the tortoise, let alone pass him… But that doesn’t make sense…

Will Achilles lose the race??? Check out this great video from Numberphile that explains both the paradox and the solution.

logo_PR_225_160While I was looking for information about this paradox, I stumbled across a great math resource site called Platonic Realms. The homepage of this site has a daily historical fact, mathematical quote, and puzzle.

The site hosts a math encyclopedia with explanations of all kinds of math terms and little biographies of famous mathematicians. You can also read “mini-texts” about different mathematical topics, such as this one about M. C. Escher (the inspiration behind the art at the beginning of this post!) or this one about coping with math anxiety.

I hope we here at Math Munch have given you something to tantalize your mathematical taste buds this week! If so, we’d love it if you would pass it along.

Thank you for reading, and bon appetit!

Rush hourP.S. – We’ve posted a new game, suggested to us by one of our readers! It’s an online version of Rush Hour. Check it out!

World’s Oldest Person, Graphing Challenge, and Escher Sketch

265282-jiroemon-kimura-the-world-s-oldest-living-man-celebrated-his-115th-birOn April 19th, Jiroeman Kimura celebrated his 116th birthday. He was – and still is – the world’s oldest person, and the world’s longest living man – ever. (As far as researchers know, that is. There could be a man who has lived longer that the public doesn’t know about.) The world’s longest living woman was Jeanne Calment, who lived to be 122 and a half!

Most people don’t live that long, and, obviously, only one person can hold the title of “Oldest Person in the World” at any given time. So, you may  be wondering… how often is there a new oldest person in the world? (Take a few guesses, if you like. I’ll give you the answer soon!)

stackSome mathematicians were wondering this, too, and they went about answering their question in the way they know best: by sharing their question with other mathematicians around the world! In April, a mathematician who calls himself Gugg, asked this question on the website Mathematics Stack Exchange, a free question-and-answer site that people studying math can use to share their ideas with each other. Math Stack Exchange says that it’s for “people studying math at any level.” If you browse around, you’ll see mathematicians asking for help on all kinds of questions, such as this tricky algebra problem and this problem about finding all the ways to combine coins to get a certain amount of money.  Here’s an entry from a student asking for help on trigonometry homework. You might need some specialized math knowledge to understand some of the questions, but there’s often one that’s both interesting and understandable on the list.

Anyway, Gugg asked on Math Stack Exchange, “How often does the oldest person in the world die?” and the community of mathematicians around the world got to work! Several mathematicians gave ways to calculate how often a new person becomes the oldest person in the world. You can read about how they worked it out on Math Stack Exchange, if you like, or on the Smithsonian blog – it’s a good example of how people use math to model things that happen in the world. Oh, and, in case you were wondering, a new person becomes the world’s oldest about every 0.65 years. (Is that around what you expected? It was definitely more often than I expected!)

advanced 4

Next, check out this graph! Yes, that’s a graph – there is a single function that you can make so that when you graph it, you get that.  Crazy – and beautiful! This was posted by a New York City math teacher named Michael Pershan to a site called Daily Desmos, and he challenges you to figure out how to make it!  (He challenged me, too. I worked on this for days.)

qod0nxgctfMichael made this graph using an awesome free, online graphing program called Desmos. Michael and many other people regularly post graphing challenges on Daily Desmos. Some of them are very difficult (like the one shown above), but some are definitely solvable without causing significant amounts of pain. They’re marked with levels “Basic” and “Advanced.” (See if you can spot contributions from a familiar Math Munch face…)


Here are more that I think are particularly beautiful. If you’re feeling more creative than puzzle-solvey, try making a cool graph of your own! You can submit a graphing challenge of your own to Daily Desmos.

escher 3If you’ve got the creative bug, you could also check out a new MArTH tool that we just found called Escher Web Sketch. This tool was designed by three Swiss mathematicians, and it helps you to make intricate tessellations with interesting symmetries – like the ones made by the mathematical artist M. C. Escher. If you like Symmetry Artist and Kali, you’ll love this applet.

Be healthy and happy! Enjoy graphing and sketching! And, bon appetit!

Visualizations, Inspirations, and the Super Ultimate Graphing Challenge

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Jason Davies

Meet Jason Davies, a freelance mathematician living in the UK. Growing up in Wales (one of the 4 countries of the United Kingdom) his classes were taught in Welsh. This makes Jason one of only about 611,000 people that speak the language, only 21.7% of the population of Wales! Imagine if only 1/5 of France spoke French!! These statistics are from a 2004 study, so the numbers may have changed a bit, but they still say something interesting don’t they?

Prime Seive

Jason is all about what numbers and pictures can tell us.  Since graduating from Cambridge, he’s been doing all sorts of data visualization and computer science on his own for various companies and IT firms. I originally found Jason through a link to his Prime Seive visualization, but take a look at his gallery and you’re bound to find something beautiful, interesting, interactive, and cool. I’ve linked to some of my favorites below.

Interactive Apollonian Gasket

Rhodonea Curves

Set Partitions

I asked Jason a few questions about his interest in data visualization and math in general. Here’s a tasty little excerpt:

MM: What’s the most important trait for a mathematician to have? Is there one?

JD: Persistance is always useful in maths! I think the stereotype is to be analytical and logical, but in fact there are many other traits that are highly important, for instance communication skills. Mathematics is passed on from person to person, after all, so being able to communicate ideas effectively is dynamite.

MM: Do you have a message you’d like to give to young mathematicians?

JD: The world needs you!

Read the rest in our Q&A with Jason Davies, and you can see all of our interviews on the Q&A page we’ve just created.

Up next, a beautiful and inspiring video from Spain. The video is actually called Insprations, and it comes to us from Etérea Studios, the online home of animator Cristóbal Vila. In the intro he says, “I looked into that enormous and inexhaustible source of inspiration that is Escher and tried to imagine how it could be his workplace, what things would surround an artist like him, so deeply interested in science in general and mathematics in particular.”

I’d die to have an office like this!

It gets better.  Cristóbal added a page explaining all of the wonderful maths in the video. Click to read about Platonic solids, tilings, tangrams, and various works of art by M.C. Escher.

Finally, a nifty new game that explores the relationship between graphs and different kinds of motion. Super Ultimate Graphing Challenge is a game developed by Physics teacher Matthew Blackman to help his students understand the physics and mathematics of motion. You might not understand it all when you start, but keep playing and see what you can make of it. If you need a bit of help or have something to say, post it in our comments, and we’ll happily reply.

Bon appetit!

Partitions, Riddles, and Escher Videos

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Meet James Tanton, one of my very favorite mathematicians. According to his bio, James is “deeply interested in bridging the gap between the mathematics experienced by school students and the creative mathematics practiced and explored by mathematicians.” Me too! Dr. Tanton is an author and math teacher, but I know him best through his internet videos. Some of them cover some pretty advanced mathematics, but this video on partitions and the Fibonacci numbers is very clear and WAY COOL!

o o oo ooo ooooo

Up next, check out Steve Miller’s Math Riddles, a website full of fantastic (you guessed it) math riddles collected by Steve Miller. Steve’s a math professor at Williams College, and according to him, these riddles, “have two very desirable properties: they have an elegant solution, and that solution doesn’t involve advanced mathematics… What you do need is some patience, and a willingness to explore. Don’t be afraid to try something — see where it leads!”

With that in mind, why not give some a try? You can sort the riddles by topic or difficulty, but here a few possible starters:

There are fifteen sticks. Remove six sticks and be left with ten.

Finally, some relaxing videos I’ve found to showcase once again the fantastic artwork of Dutch graphic artist, M.C. Escher. We’ve featured his work before, but I can never get enough.

3 Spheres II by M.C. Escher

“Mathematicians know their subject is beautiful. Escher shows us that it’s beautiful.” That’s a lovely little quote from mathematician Ian Stewart in this short little clip called, The Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher. If you’re up for something more substantial, here’s an hour-long documentary called Metamorphose, which features video of Escher himself hard at work, something I had never seen before! If you end up watching, leave us a comment and let us know what you think.

We’ve also put together a YouTube playlist of every video ever featured on Math Munch, which we will continue to update. If you want to find the coolest math vids on the internet, I’d say that’s a good place to start.

Bon appetit!