Tag Archives: geometry

Nice Neighbors, Spinning GIFs, and Breakfast

A minimenger.

A minimenger.

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Math projects are exciting—especially when a whole bunch of people work together. One example of big-time collaboration is the GIMPS project, where anyone can use their computer to help find the next large prime number. Another is the recent MegaMenger project, where people from all over the world helped to build a giant 3D fractal.

But what if I told you that you can join up with others on the internet to discover some brand-new math by playing a webgame?

Chris Staecker is a math professor at Fairfield University. This past summer he led a small group of students in a research project. Research Experiences for Undergraduates—or REUs, as they’re called—are summer opportunities for college students to be mentored by professors. Together they work to figure out some brand-new math.

The crew from last summer's REU at Fairfield. Chris is furthest in the back.

The crew from last summer’s REU at Fairfield. Chris is furthest in the back.

The irreducible digital images containing 1, 5, 6, and 7 points.

The irreducible digital images containing 1, 5, 6, and 7 “chunks”.

Chris and his students Jason Haarmann, Meg Murphy, and Casey Peters worked on a topic in graph theory called “digital images”. Computer images are made of discrete chunks, but we often want to make them smaller—like with pixel art. So how can we make sure that we can make them smaller without losing too much information? That’s an important problem.

Now, the pixels on a computer screen are in a nice grid, but we could also wonder about the same question on an arbitrary connected network—and that’s what Chris, Jason, Meg, and Casey did. Some networks can be made smaller through one-step “neighbor” moves while still preserving the correct connection properties. Others can’t. By the end of the summer, the team had come up with enough results about digital images with up to eight chunks to write about them in a paper.

To help push their research further, Chris has made a webgame that takes larger networks and offers them as puzzles to solve. Here’s how I solved one of them:


See how the graph “retracts” onto itself, just by moving some of the nodes on top of their neighbors? That’s the goal. And there are lots of puzzles to work on. For many of them, if you solve them, you’ll be the first person ever to do so! Mathematical breakthrough! Your result will be saved, the number at the bottom of the screen will go up by one, and Chris and his students will be one step closer to classifying unshrinkable digital images.

Starting with the tutorial for Nice Neighbors is a good idea. Then you can try out the unsolved experimental puzzles. If you find success, please let us know about in the comments!

Do you have a question for Chris and his students? Then send it to us and we’ll try to include it in our upcoming Q&A with them.


Next up: you probably know by now that at Math Munch, we just can’t get enough of great mathy gifs. Well, Sumit Sijher has us covered this week, with his Tumblr called archery.

Here are four of Sumit’s gifs. There are plenty more where these came from. This is a nice foursome, though, because they all spin. Click to see the images full-sized!


How many different kinds of cubes can you spot?

This one reminds me of the Whitney Music Box.

This one reminds me of the
Whitney Music Box.


Clockwise or counterclockwise?

Clockwise or counterclockwise?

I really appreciate how Sumit also shares the computer code that he uses to make each image. It gives a whole new meaning to “show your work”!

Through Sumit’s work I discovered that WolframAlpha—an online calculator that is way more than a calculator—has a Tumblr, too. By browsing it you can find some groovy curves and crazy estimations. Sumit won an honorable mention in Wolfram’s One-Liner Competition back in 2012. You can see his entry in this video.

And now for the most important meal of the day: breakfast. Mathematicians eat breakfast, just like everyone else. What do mathematicians eat for breakfast? Just about any kind of breakfast you might name. For some audio-visual evidence, here’s a collection of sound checks by Numberphile.

Sconic sections. Yum!

Sconic sections. Yum!

If that has you hungry for a mathematical breakfast, you might enjoy munching on some sconic sectionsa linked-to-itself bagel, or some spirograph pancakes.

Bon appetit!

George Washington, Tessellation Kit, and Langton’s Ant

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

002What will you do with your math notebook at the end of the school year? Keep it as a reference for the future? Save it as a keepsake? Toss it out? Turn it into confetti? Find your favorite math bits and doodles and make a collage?

Lucky for us, our first president kept his math notebooks from when he was a young teenager. And though it’s passed through many hands over the years—including those of Chief Justice John Marshall and the State Department—it has survived to this day. That’s right. You can check out math problems and definitions copied out by George Washington over 250 years ago. They’re all available online at the Library of Congress website.

Or at least most of them. They seem to be out of order, with a few pages missing!

Fred Rickey

That’s what mathematician and math history detective Fred Rickey has figured out. Fred has long been a fan of math history. Since he retired from the US Military Academy in 2011, Fred has been able to pursue his historical interests more actively. Fred is currently studying the Washington cypher books to help prepare a biography about Washington’s boyhood years. You can see two papers that Fred has co-authored about Washington’s mathematics here.

Fred writes:

Washington valued his cyphering books and kept them as a ready source of reference for the rest of his life. This would seem to be particularly true of his surveying studies.

Surveying played a big role in Washington’s career, and math is important for today’s surveyors, too.

Do you have a question for Fred about the math that George Washington learned? Send it to us and we’ll try to include it in our upcoming Q&A with Fred!

A tessellation, by me!

A tessellation, by me!

Next up, check out this Tessellation Kit. It was made by Nico Disseldorp, who also made the geometry construction game we featured recently. The kit is a lot of fun to play with!

One thing I like about this Tessellation Kit is how it’s discrete—it deals with large chunks of the screen at a time. This restriction make me want to explore, because it give me the feeling that there are only so many possible combinations.

I’m also curious about the URL for this applet—the web address for it. Notice how it changes whenever you make a change in your tessellation? What happens when you change some of those letters and numbers—like bababaaaa to bababcccc? Interesting…

For another fun applet, check out this doodling ant:

Langton's Ant.

Langton’s Ant.

Langton’s Ant is following a simple set of rules. In a white square? Turn right. In a black square? Turn left. And switch the color of the square that you leave. This ant is an example of a cellular automaton, and we’ve seen several of these here on Math Munch before. This one is different from others because it changes just one square at a time, and not the whole screen at once.

Breaking out of chaos.

Breaking out of chaos.

There’s a lot that is unknown about Langton’s ant, and it has some mysterious behavior. For example, after thousands of steps of seeming randomness, the ant goes into a steady pattern, paving a highway out to infinity. What gives? Well, you can try out some patterns of your own in the applets on the Serendip website. (previously). And you can read some amusing tales—ant-ecdotes?—about Langton’s ant in this lovely article.

DSC03509I learned about Langton’s Ant from Richard Evan Schwartz in our new Q&A. In the interview, Rich shares his thoughts about computers, art, what to pursue in life, and of course: Really Big Numbers.

Check it out, and bon appetit!

Weights, Crazy Geometry Game, and Pumpkin Polyhedra

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Weighing puzzleHere’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.

Circle two pack

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…

Truncated icosahedron pumpkinFinally, 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 polyhedra

Pumpkin Platonic polyhedra!


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



Zentangle, Graph Paper, and Pancake Art

My recent doodling.

Some recent doodling, by me.

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

As you start a new school year, you might be looking for some new mathy doodle games to play in the margins of your notebooks. Doodling helps me to listen sometimes, and I love making neat patterns. I especially like seeing what new shapes I can make.

This summer I was very happy to run across Zentangle®—”an easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns.” I’ve learned a lot about Zentangle from a blog called Tangle Bucket by Sandy Hunter. She shares how to doodle snircles, snafoozles, and oodles. There’s a whole dictionary of zentangle shapes over at tanglepatterns.com.

My favorite idea in Zentangle is trying to combine two kinds of designs. Sometimes this is described as one pattern “versus” another one. For instance, check out these:


Maybe you’ll pick some tangle patterns to combine with each other. If you try some, maybe you’ll share them in our Readers’ Gallery.

Sandy writes:

It’s so true that the more I tangle, the more I see the potential in patterns all around me. I catch myself mentally deconstructing them (whether I want to or not) to figure out if they can be broken down into simple steps without too much effort. That’s the trademark of a good tangle pattern.

Try some of Sandy’s weekly challenges, or check out Tiffany Lovering’s time-lapse videos—here’s one with music and one with an interview. Can you learn the names of any of the shapes she creates? I spy a Rick’s Paradox. There are lots of ways to begin zentangling—I hope you enjoy giving it a try.

Squares and dots and crosses, oh my!

Squares & dots & crosses, oh my!

If zentangling is too freeform for your doodling tastes, then let me share with you one of my longtime favorite websites. I’ve used it for years to help me to do math and to teach math, and it’s great for math doodling, too. I might even call it a trusty friend, one that I met one day through the simple online search: “free online graph paper”.

That’s right, it’s Free Online Graph Paper.

Something I love about the site is that it lets you design different aspects of your graph paper. Then you can print it out. First you get to decide what kind of grid you would like: square? triangular? circular? Then you get to tinker with lots of variables, like how big the grid cells are, how dark the lines are, and what color they are. And more!

Free Online Graph Paper was created by Kevin MacLeod, who composes music and shares it for free. That way other people can use it for creative projects. That’s really awesome! I enjoyed listening to Kevin’s “Winner Winner“. It’s always good to be reminded that everything you use or enjoy was almost certainly made by a person—including custom graph paper websites!

A 7/3 star spirocake.

A 7/3 star spirocake.

Last up this week is some doodly math that you can really munch on. Everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that the most important food group is roulette curves.

To get your daily recommended allowance of groovy math, look no further than the edible doodles of Nathan Shields and his family over at Saipancakes.

I can wait until the Shields family tackles the cissoid of Diocles.

Bon appetit!

Zippergons, High Fashion, and Really Big Numbers

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Bill Thurston

Bill Thurston

Recently I attended a conference in memory of Bill Thurston. Bill was one of the most imaginative and influential mathematicians of the second half of the twentieth century. He worked with many mathematicians on projects and had many students before he passed away in the fall of 2012 at the age of 65. You can read Bill’s obituary in the New York Times here.

Bill worked where geometry and topology meet. In fact, Bill throughout his career showed that there are rich connections between the two fields that no one thought was possible. For instance, it’s an amazing fact that every surface—no matter how bumpy or holey or twisted—can be given a nice, symmetric curvature. A uniform geometry, it’s called. This was proven by Henri Poincaré in 1907. It was thought that 3D spaces would be far too complicated to be behave according to a similar rule. But Bill had a vision and a conjecture—that every 3D space can be divided into parts that can be given uniform geometries. To give you a flavor of these ideas, here’s a video of Bill describing some unusual and fabulous 3D spaces.

Any surface can be given a nice, symmetric geometry.

Any surface can be given a uniform geometry. Even a bunny. Another video.

As you can probably tell, visualizing and experiencing math was very important to Bill. He even taught a course with John Conway called Geometry and the Imagination. Bill often used computers to help himself see the math he was thinking about, and he enjoyed making hands-on models as well. Beginning in spring of 2010, Bill and Kelly Delp of Ithaca College worked out an idea. Usually all of the curving or turning of a polyhedron is concentrated at the vertices. Most of a cube is flat, but there’s a whole lot of pinch at the corners. What if you could spread that pinching out along the edges? And if you could, wouldn’t longer and perhaps wiggly edges help spread it even better? Yes and yes! You can see some examples of these “zippergons” that Bill and Kelly imagined and made in this gallery and read about them in their Bridges article.

A zippergon based on an octahedron.

A paper octahedron zippergon.


A foam icosadodecahedron zippergon.

One of Bill’s last collaborations happened not with a mathematician but with a fashion designer. Dai Fujiwara, a noted creator of high fashion in Tokyo, got inspired by some of Bill’s illustrations. In collaboration with Bill, Dai created eight outfits. Each one was based on one of the eight Thurston geometries. You can see the result of their work together in this video and read more about it in this article.

Isn’t it amazing how creative minds in very different fields can learn from each other and create something together?

Richard Evan Schwartz (self-portrait)

Richard Evan Schwartz (self-portrait)

Richard Evan Schwartz was one of the speakers at the conference honoring Bill. Rich studied with Bill at Princeton and now is a math professor at Brown University.

Like Bill, Rich’s work can be highly visual and playful, and he often taps the power of computers to visualize and analyze mathematical structures. There’s lots to explore on Rich’s website. Check out these applets he has made, including ones on Poncelet’s Porism, the Euclidean algorithm (previously), and a game called Lucy & Lily (JAVA required). I love how Rich shares some of his earliest applet-making efforts, like Click On A Triangle To Change Its Color. It’s motivating to see that even an accomplished mathematician like Rich began with the basics of programming—a place where any of us can start!

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 2.54.37 AMOn Rich’s site you’ll also find information about his project “Counting on Monsters“. And you should definitely make time to read some of the conversations that Rich has had with his five-year-old daughter Lucy.

Recently Rich published a wonderful new book for kids called “Really Big Numbers“. It is a colorful romp through larger and larger numbers and layers of abstraction, with evocative images to light the way. Check out the trailer for “Really Big Numbers” below!

Do you have a question for Rich—about his book, or about the math that he does, or about his life, or about Bill? Then send it to us in the form below and we’ll try to include it in our interview with him!

EDIT: Thanks for all your questions! Our Q&A with Rich will be posted soon.

Diana and Rich

Diana and Rich

Diana and Bill

Diana and Bill

Bill taught Rich, and Rich in turn taught Diana Davis, whose Dance Your PhD video we featured a while back. In fact, Bill’s influence on mathematics can be seen throughout many of our posts on Math Munch. Bill collaborated with Daina Taimina on hyperbolic crochet projects. He taught Jeff Weeks and helped inspire the games and software Jeff created. Bill oversaw the production of the film Outside In about the eversion of a sphere. He even coined the mathematical term “pair of pants.”

Bill’s vision of mathematics will live on in many people. That could include you, if you’d like. It’s just as Bill wrote:

In short, mathematics only exists in a living community of mathematicians that spreads understanding and breaths life into ideas both old and new.

Bon appetit!

Girls’ Angle, Spiral Tilings, and Coins

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

GirlsAngleCoverGirls’ Angle is a math club for girls. Since 2007 it has helped girls to grow their love of math through classes, events, mentorship, and a vibrant mathematical community. Girls’ Angle is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but its ideas and resources reach around the world through the amazing power of the internet. (And don’t you worry, gentlemen—there’s plenty for you to enjoy on the site as well.)

Amazingly, the site contains an archive of every issue of Girls’ Angle Bulletin, a wonderful bimonthly journal to “foster and nurture girls’ interest in mathematics.” In their most recent issue, you’ll find an interview with mathematician Karen E. Smith, along with several articles and puzzles about balance points of shapes.

There’s so much to dig into at Girls’ Angle! In addition to the Bulletins, there are two pages of mathematical videos. The first page shares a host of videos of women in mathematics sharing a piece of math that excited them when they were young. The most recent one is by Bridget Tenner, who shares about Pick’s Theorem. The second page includes several videos produced by Girls’ Angle, including this one called “Summer Vacation”.

Girls’ Angle can even help you buy a math book that you’d like, if you can’t afford it. For so many reasons, I hope you’ll find some time to explore the Girls’ Angle site over your summer break. (And while you’ve got your explorer’s hat on, maybe you’ll tour around Math Munch, too!)

I did a Google search recently for “regular tilings.” I needed a few quick pictures of the usual triangle, square, and hexagon tilings for a presentation I was making. As I scrolled along, this image jumped out at me:


What is that?! It certainly is a tiling, and all the tiles are the “same”—even if they are different sizes. Neat!

Clicking on the image, I found myself transported to a page all about spiral tilings at the Geometry Junkyard. The site is a whole heap of geometrical odds and ends—and a place that I’ve stumbled across many times over the years. Here are a few places to get started. I’m sure you’ll enjoy poking around the site to find some favorite “junk” of your own.



Circles and spheres

Circles & spheres



Last up this week, you may have seen this coin puzzle before. Can you make the triangle point downwards by moving just three pennies?triangleflip

There are lots of variants of this puzzle. You can find some in an online puzzle game called Coins. In the game you have to make arrangements of coins, but the twist is that you can only move a coin to a spot where would it touch at least two other coins. I’m enjoying playing Coins—give it a try!

I solved this Coins puzzle in four moves. Can you? Can you do better?

I solved this Coins puzzle in four moves. Can you? Can you do better?

That’s it for this week’s Math Munch. Bon appetit!


Origami Stars, Tessellation Stars, and Chaotic Stars

Welcome to this week’s star-studded Math Munch!

downloadModular origami stars have taken the school I teach in by storm in recent months! We love making them so much that I thought I’d share some instructional videos with you. My personal favorite is this transforming eight-pointed star. It slides between a disk with a hole the middle (great for throwing) and a gorgeous, pinwheel-like eight-pointed star. Here’s how you make one:

Another favorite is this lovely sixteen-pointed star. You can make it larger or smaller by adding or removing pieces. It’s quite impressive when completed and not that hard to make. Give it a try:

type6thContinuing on our theme of stars, check out these beautiful star tessellations. They come from a site made by Jim McNeil featuring oh-so-many things you can do with polygons and polyhedra. On this page, Jim tells you all about tessellations, focusing on a category of tessellations called star and retrograde tessellations.

type3b400px-Tiling_Semiregular_3-12-12_Truncated_Hexagonal.svgTake, for example, this beautiful star tessellation that he calls the Type 3. Jim describes how one way to make this tessellation is to replace the dodecagons in a tessellation called the 12.12.3 tessellation (shown to the left) with twelve-pointed stars. He uses the 12/5 star, which is made by connecting every fifth dot in a ring of twelve dots. Another way to make this tessellation is in the way shown above. In this tessellation, four polygons are arranged around a single point– a 12/5 star, followed by a dodecagon, followed by a 12/7 star (how is this different from a 12/5 star?), and, finally, a 12/11-gon– which is exactly the same as a dodecagon, just drawn in a different way.

I think it’s interesting that the same pattern can be constructed in different ways, and that allowing for cool shapes like stars and different ways of attaching them can open up crazy new worlds of tessellations! Maybe you’ll want to try drawing some star tessellations of your own after seeing some of these.

Screenshot 2014-05-12 10.48.46Finally, to finish off our week of everything stars, check out the star I made with this double pendulum simulator.  What’s so cool about the double pendulum? It’s a pendulum– a weight attached to a string suspended from a point– with a second weight hung off the bottom of the first. Sounds simple, right? Well, the double pendulum actually traces a chaotic path for most sizes of the weights, lengths of the strings, and angles at which you drop them. This means that very small changes in the initial conditions cause enormous changes in the path of the pendulum, and that the path of the pendulum is not a predictable pattern.

Using the simulator, you can set the values of the weights, lengths, and angles and watch the path traced on the screen. If you select “star” under the geometric settings, the simulator will set the parameters so that the pendulum traces this beautiful star pattern. Watch what happens if you wiggle the settings just a little bit from the star parameters– you’ll hardly recognize the path. Chaos at work!

Happy star-gazing, and bon appetit!