Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!
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 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 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 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!
On 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 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.”