Tag Archives: history

Nautilus, The Riddler, and Brain Pickings

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Sometimes math pops up in places when you aren’t even looking for it. This week I’d like to share three websites that I enjoy. What they have in common is that they all cover a wide range of subjects—astronomy, politics, pop culture—but also host some great math if you know where to look for it.

nautilusFirst up is a site called Nautilus. In their own words, “We are here to tell you about science and its endless connections to our lives.” Each month they publish articles around a theme. This month’s theme is “Heroes.” Included in Nautilus’s mission is discussing mathematics, and you can find their math articles on this page. Here are a few articles to get you started. Read about how Penrose tiles have made the leap from nonrepeating abstraction to the real world—including to kitchen items. Learn about one of math’s beautiful monsters and how it shook the foundations of calculus. Or you might be interested in learning about how a mathematician is using computers to change the way we write proofs.

riddler_4x3_defaultNext, you might think that, since the presidential election is now over, you won’t be heading to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight quite as often. But do you know about the site’s column called The Riddler? Each week Oliver Roeder shares two puzzles, the newer Riddler Express and the Riddler Classic. Readers can send in their solutions, and some get featured on the website—that could be you! Here are a couple of puzzles to get you started, and you can also check out the full archive. The Puzzle of the Lonesome King asks about the chances that someone will win a prince-or-princess-for-a-day competition. Can You Win This Hot New Game Show? asks you to come up with a winning strategy for a round of Highest Number Wins. And Solve The Puzzle, Stop The Alien Invasion is just what is says on the tin.


The third site I’d like to point you to is Brain Pickings. It’s a wide-ranging buffet of short articles on all kinds of topics, written and curated by Maria Popova. If you search Brain Pickings for math, all kinds of great stuff will pop up. You can read about John ConwayPaul Erdős, Margaret WertheimBlaise Pascal, and more. You’ll find book recommendations, videos, history, and artwork galore. I particularly want to highlight Maria’s article about the trailblazing African American women who helped to put a man on the moon. Their story is told in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and the feature film by the same name is coming soon to a theater near you!

I hope you find lots to dig into on these sites. Bon appetit!

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


Lucea, Fiber Bundles, and Hamilton

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

The Summer Olympics are underway in Brazil. I have loved the Olympics since I was a kid. The opening ceremony is one of my favorite parts—the celebration of the host country’s history and culture, the athletes proudly marching in and representing their homeland. And the big moment when the Olympic cauldron is lit! This year I was just so delighted by the sculpture that acted as the cauldron’s backdrop.

Isn’t that amazing! The title of this enormous metal sculpture is Lucea, and it was created by American sculptor Anthony Howe. You can read about Anthony and how he came to make Lucea for the Olympics in this article. Here’s one quote from Anthony:

“I hope what people take away from the cauldron, the Opening Ceremonies, and the Rio Games themselves is that there are no limits to what a human being can accomplish.”

Here’s another view of Lucea from Anthony’s website:

Lucea is certainly hypnotizing in its own right, but I think it jumped out at me in part because I’ve been thinking a lot about fiber bundles recently. A fiber bundle is a “twist” on a simpler kind of object called a product space. You are familiar with some examples of products spaces. A square is a line “times” a line. A cylinder is a line “times” a circle. And a torus is a circle “times” a circle.


Square, cylinder, and torus.

So, what does it mean to introduce a “twist” to a product space? Well, it means that while every little patch of your object will look like a product, the whole thing gets glued up in some fancy way. So, instead of a cylinder that goes around all normal, we can let the line factor do a flip as it goes around the circle and voila—a Mobius strip!


Now, check out this image:


It’s two Mobius strips stuck together! Does this remind you of Lucea?! Instead of a line “times” a circle that’s been twisted, we have an X shape “times” a circle.

Do you think you could fill up all of space with an infinity of circles? You might try your hand at it. One answer to this puzzle is a wonderful example of a fiber bundle called the Hopf fibration. Just as you can think about a circle as a line plus one extra point to close it up, and a sphere as a plane with one extra point to close it up, the three-sphere is usual three-dimenional space plus one extra point. The Hopf fibration shows that the three-sphere is a twisted product of a sphere “times” a circle. For a really lovely visualization of this fact, check out this video:

That is some tough but also gorgeous mathematics. Since you’ve made it this far in the post, I definitely think you deserve to indulge and maybe rock out a little. And what’s the hottest ticket on Broadway this summer? I hope you’ll enjoy this superb music video about Hamilton!

William Rowan Hamilton, that is. The inventor of quaternions, explorer of Hamiltonian circuits, and reformulator of physics. Brilliant.

citymapHere are a couple of pages of Hamiltonian circuit puzzles. The goal is to visit every dot exactly once as you draw one continuous path. Try them out! Rio, where the Olympics is happening, pops up as a dot in the first one. You might even try your hand at making some Hamiltonian puzzles of your own.

Happy puzzling, and bon appetit!

Wild Maths, Ambiguous Cylinders, and 228 Women

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

You should definitely take some time to explore Wild Maths, a site dedicated to the creative aspects of mathematics. Wild Maths is produced by the Millennium Mathematics Project, which also makes NRICH and Plus.


I won!

One fun things you’ll find on Wild Maths is a game called Square It! You can play it with a friend or against the computer. The goal is to color dots on a square grid so that you are the first to make a square in your color. It is quite challenging! To the left you’ll find my first victory against the computer after losing the first several matches.

You’ll find lots more on Wild Maths, including an equal averages challenge, a number grid journey, and some video interviews with mathematicians Katie Steckles and Nira Chamberlain. Wild Maths also has a Showcase of work that has been submitted by their readers, much like our own Readers’ Gallery. (We love hearing from you and seeing your creations!)

Next up is a video of an amazing illusion:

Now, I am as big of a fan of squircles as anyone, but this video really threw me for a loop. The illusion just gets crazier and crazier! The illusion was designed by Kokichi Sugihara of Meiji University in Japan. It recently won second place in the Best Illusion of the Year Contest.

We are fortunate that Dave Richeson has hit it out of the park again, this time sharing both an explanation of the mathematics behind the illusion and a paper template you can use to make your own ambiguous cylinder!

PWinmathFinally this week, I’d like to share a fascinating document with you. It is a supplement to a book called Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940s PhD’s by Judy Green and Jeanne LaDuke.

The supplement gives biographies of all 228 American women who earned their PhD’s in mathematics during the first four decades of the 20th century. You might enjoy checking out this page from the National Museum of American History, which describes some about the origin of the book project.


Judy Green, Jeanne LaDuke, and fifteen women who received their PhD’s in math before 1940.

I hope you will find both pleasure and inspiration in reading the stories of these pioneers in American mathematics. I have found them to be a lot of fun to read.

Bon appetit!

SET, Ptolemy, and Malin Christersson

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

To set up the punchline: if you haven’t played the card game SET before, do yourself a favor and go try it out now!

(Or if you prefer, here’s a video tutorial.)


Are there any sets to be found here?

(And even if you have played before, go ahead and indulge yourself with a round. You deserve a SET break. 🙂 )

Now, we’ve shared about SET before, but recently there has been some very big SET-related news. Although things have been quieter around Georgia Tech since summer has started, there has been a buzz both here and around the internet about a big breakthrough by Vsevolod Lev, Péter Pál Pach, and Georgia Tech professor Ernie Croot. Together they have discovered a new approach to estimate how big a SET-less collection of SET cards can be.

In SET there are a total of 81 cards, since each card expresses one combination of four different characteristics (shape, color, filling, number) for which there are three possibilities each. That makes 3^4=81 combinations of characteristics. Of these 81 cards, what do you think is the most cards we could lay out without a SET appearing? This is not an easy problem, but it turns out the answer is 20. An even harder problem, though, is asking the same question but for bigger decks where there are five or ten or seventy characteristics—and so 3^5 or 3^10 or 3^70 cards. Finding the exact answer to these larger problems would be very, very hard, and so it would be nice if we could at least estimate how big of a collection of SET-less cards we could make in each case. This is called the cap set problem, and Vsevolod, Péter, and Ernie found a much, much better way to estimate the answers than what was previously known.

To find out more on the background of the cap set problem, check out this “low threshold, high ceiling” article by Michigan grad student Charlotte Chan. And I definitely encourage you to check out this article by Erica Klarreich in Quanta Magazine for more details about the breakthrough and for reactions from the mathematical community. Here’s a choice quote:

Now, however, mathematicians have solved the cap set problem using an entirely different method — and in only a few pages of fairly elementary mathematics. “One of the delightful aspects of the whole story to me is that I could just sit down, and in half an hour I had understood the proof,” Gowers said.

(For further wonderful math articles, you’ll want to visit Erica’s website.)

 Vsevolod  Peter  Ernie
 Charlotte  Erica  Marsha

These are photos of Vsevolod, Péter, Ernie, Charlotte, Erica, and the creator of SET, geneticist Marsha Jean Falco.

Ready for more? Earlier this week, I ran across this animation:


It shows two ways of modeling the motions of the sun and the planets in the sky. On the left is a heliocentric model, which means the sun is at the center. On the right is a geocentric model, which means the earth is at the center.


Around 250 BC, Aristarchus calculated the size of the sun, and decided it was too big to revolve around the earth!

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and that the earth and the planets revolve around the sun. (After all, we call it a “solar system”, don’t we?) But it took a long time for human beings to decide that this is so.

I have to confess: I have a soft spot for the geocentric model. I ran across the animation in a Facebook group of some graduates of St. John’s College, where I studied as an undergrad. We spent a semester or so reading Ptolemy’s Almagest—literally, the “Great Work”—on the geocentric model of the heavens. It is an incredible work of mathematics and of natural science. Ptolemy calculated the most accurate table of chords—a variation on a table of the sine function—that existed in his time and also proved intricate facts about circular motion. For example, here’s a video that shows that the eccentric and epicyclic models of solar motion are equivalent. What’s really remarkable is that not only does Ptolemy’s system account for the motions of the heavenly bodies, it actually gave better predictions of the locations of the planets than Copernicus’s heliocentric system when the latter first debuted in the 1500s. Not bad for something that was “wrong”!

Here are Ptolemy and Copernicus’s ways of explaining how Mars appears to move in the sky:

ptolemy Copernicus_Mars

Maybe you would like to learn more about the history of models of the cosmos? Or maybe you would like tinker with a world-system of your own? You might notice that the circles-on-circles of Ptolemy’s model are just like a spirograph or a roulette. I wonder what would happen if we made the orbit circles in much different proportions?


Malin, tiled hyperbolically.

Now, I was very glad to take this stroll down memory lane back to my college studies, but little did I know that I was taking a second stroll as well: the person who created this great animation, I had run across several other pieces of her work before! Her name is Malin Christersson and she’s a PhD student in math education in Sweden. She is also a computer scientist who previously taught high school and also teaches many people about creating math in GeoGebra. You can try out her many GeoGebra applets here. Malin also has a Tumblr where she posts gifs from the applets she creates.

About a year ago I happened across an applet that lets you create art in the style of artist (and superellipse creator) Piet Mondrian. But it also inverts your art—reflects it across a circle—so that you can view your own work from a totally different perspective. Then just a few months later I delighted in finding another applet where you can tile the hyperbolic plane with an image of your choice. (I used one tiling I produced as my Twitter photo for a while.)



tiling (4)

Me, tiled hyperbolically.

And now come to find out these were both made by Malin, just like the astronomy animation above! And Malin doesn’t stop there, no, no. You should see her fractal applets depicting Julia sets. And her Rolling Hypocycloids and Epicycloids are can’t-miss. (Echoes of Ptolemy there, yes?!)

And please don’t miss out on Malin’s porfolio of applets made in the programming language Processing.

It’s a good feeling to finally put the pieces together and to have a new mathematician, artist, and teacher who inspires me!

I hope you’ll find some inspiration, too. Bon appetit!

Pi Digit, Pi Patterns, and Pi Day Anthem


Painting by Renée Othot for Simon Plouffe’s birthday.

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

It’s here—the Pi Day of the Century happens on Saturday: 3-14-15!

How will you celebrate? You might check to see if there are any festivities happening in your area. There might be an event at a library, museum, school, or university near you.

(Here are some pi day events in NYC, Baltimore, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, and Charlotte.)


John Conway at the pi recitation contest in Princeton.

John Conway at the pi recitation contest in Princeton.

There’s a huge celebration here in Princeton—in part because Pi Day is also Albert Einstein’s birthday, and Albert lived in Princeton for the last 22 years of his life. One event involves kids reciting digits of pi and and is hosted by John Conway and his son, a two-time winner of the contest. I’m looking forward to attending! But as has been noted, memorizing digits of pi isn’t the most mathematical of activities. As Evelyn Lamb relays,

I do feel compelled to point out that besides base 10 being an arbitrary way of representing pi, one of the reasons I’m not fond of digit reciting contests is that, to steal an analogy I read somewhere, memorizing digits of pi is to math as memorizing the order of letters in Robert Frost’s poems is to literature. It’s not an intellectually meaningful activity.

I haven’t memorized very many digits of pi, but I have memorized a digit of pi that no one else has. Ever. In the history of the world. Probably no one has ever even thought about this digit of pi.

And you can have your own secret digit, too—all thanks to Simon Plouffe‘s amazing formula.


Simon’s formula shows that pi can be calculated chunk by chunk in base 16 (or hexadecimal). A single digit of pi can be plucked out of the number without calculating the ones that come before it.

Wikipedia observes:

The discovery of this formula came as a surprise. For centuries it had been assumed that there was no way to compute the nth digit of π without calculating all of the preceding n − 1 digits.

Check out some of Simon's math art!

Check out some of Simon’s math art!

Simon is a mathematician who was born in Quebec. In addition to his work on the digits of irrational numbers, he also helped Neil Sloane with his Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, which soon online and became the OEIS (previously). Simon is currently a Trustee of the OEIS Foundation.

There is a wonderful article by Simon and his colleagues David Bailey, Jonathan Borwein, and Peter Borwein called The Quest for Pi. They describe the history of the computation of digits of pi, as well as a description of the discovery of their digit-plucking formula.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most digits that someone has memorized and recited is 67,890. Unofficial records go up to 100,000 digit. So just to be safe, I’ve used an algorithm by Fabrice Bellard based on Simon’s formula to calculate the 314159th digit of pi. (Details here and here.) No one in the world has this digit of pi memorized except for me.

Ready to hear my secret digit of pi? Lean in and I’ll whisper it to you.

The 314159th digit of pi is…7. But let’s keep that just between you and me!

And just to be sure, I used this website to verify the 314159th digit. You can use the site to try to find any digit sequence in the first 200 million digits of pi.

Aziz and Peter's patterns.

Aziz & Peter’s patterns.

Next up: we met Aziz Inan in last week’s post. This week, in honor of Pi Day, check out some of the numerical coincidences Aziz has discovered in the early digits in pi. Aziz and his colleague Peter Osterberg wrote an article about their findings. By themselves, these observations are nifty little patterns. Maybe you’ll find some more of your own. (This kind of thing reminds me of the Strong Law of Small Numbers.) As Aziz and Peter note at the end of the article, perhaps the study of such little patterns will one day help to show that pi is a normal number.

And last up this week, to get your jam on as Saturday approaches, here’s the brand new Pi Day Anthem by the recently featured John Sims and the inimitable Vi Hart.

Bon appetit!

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!

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.35.54 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.36.11 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.36.31 PM

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!

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.19.18 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.19.48 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 1.20.13 PM

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

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 10.55.35 AM
Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 10.51.45 AM
Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 11.07.17 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 2.05.49 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 2.05.28 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 2.06.04 PM

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