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!