Tag Archives: history

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!