Tag Archives: history

Grothendieck, Circle Packing, and String Art

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Grothendieckportra_3107171cThis week brought some sad news to the mathematical world. Alexander Grothendieck, known by many as the greatest mathematician of the past century, passed away on November 13th. You may not have heard of him, but many mathematicians say that the work he did in math was as influential as the work Albert Einstein did in physics.

One of the things that make Grothendieck so interesting is, of course, the math he did. Grothendieck was always very creative. When he was in high school, he preferred to do math problems he made up on his own over the problems assigned by his teacher. “These were the book’s problems, and not my problems,” he said.

When he was young, inspired by some gaps he found in definitions in his geometry book about measuring lengths and areas, Grothendieck re-created some of the most important mathematical ideas of the beginning of the twentieth century. Maybe this sounds silly to you– why re-invent something that’s already been done? But, to Grothendieck, the most important part was that he’d done the whole thing by himself. He’d figured out something in his own way. He later wrote that this experience showed him what being a mathematician was like:

Without having been told, I nevertheless knew ‘in
my gut’ that I was a mathematician: someone who
‘does’ math, in the fullest sense of the word…

During his years as a mathematician, Grothendieck worked on connecting different parts of math (a project requiring a lot of creativity)– algebra, geometry, topology, and calculus, among others.

Grothendieck kid

Alexander Grothendieck as a kid

The other thing that makes Grothendieck so interesting is his life story. As a kid, Grothendieck and his parents fled from Germany to France to escape the Nazis. As an adult, Grothendieck spoke out strongly for peace. He used his fame to take a stand against the wars of the second half of the twentieth century. This eventually led him to step away from the world of mathematicians– which many regretted. But he left behind work that changed all of mathematics for the better.

If you’d like to learn more about Grothendieck’s fascinating life and work, check out this great (but long) article from the American Mathematical Society. This article provides a shorter history, including a great statement Grothendieck made about his feelings on creativity in mathematics. Grothendieck was a very private person, so many of his mathematical writings aren’t available online– but the Grothendieck Circle has done their best to collect everything written about him.

Fractal-Apollonian-Gasket-Variations-02

A pretty circle packing

Next up, a little something for you to play with! We were studying circle packing problems in one of my classes this week. Did you know that you can fit exactly six circles snugly around another circle of the same size? But, if you try to fit circles snugly around a circle twice as large, it doesn’t work? I wonder why that is…

 

I did it!

I did it!

Anyway, my class inspired me to look for a circle packing game– and I found one! In this game, simply called Circle Packing, you have to fit all of the smaller circles into the larger circle– without any of them touching! It’s pretty tricky, and really fun.

String art wall long

String art circleFinally, the Math Munch team got something wonderful in the mail (email, I guess) this week! Math art made by Julia Dweck’s 5th grade math class! Julia’s class has been working hard to make parabolic curve string art– curves made by drawing (or stringing, in this case) many, many straight lines. They plotted each curve precisely before stringing it, to make sure it was both mathematically and artistically perfect. The pieces they made are so creative and beautiful. We’re proud to feature them on our site!

String art parabolaYou can see the whole collection of string art pieces made by Julia’s class on our Readers’ Gallery String Art page. And, want to know more about how the 5th graders made their String Art? Have any questions for Julia and her students about their love of math and the connections they see between math and art? Write your questions here and we’ll send them to Julia’s students!

Have any math art of your own? Send it to mathmunchteam@gmail.com, and we’ll post it in the Readers’ Gallery!

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!

Spheres, Gears, and Souvenirs

92GearSphere-20-24-16Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Whoa. What is that?

Is that even possible?

This gear sphere and many others are the creations of Paul Nylander. There are 92 gears in this gear sphere. Can you figure out how many there are of each color? Do you notice any familiar shapes in the gears’ layout?

What’s especially neat are the sizes of the gears—how many teeth each gear color has. You can see the ratios in the upper left corner. Paul describes some of the steps he took to find gears sizes that would work together. He wrote a computer program to do some searching. Then he did some precise calculating and some trial and error. And finally he made some choices about which possibilities he liked best. Sounds like doing math to me!

Along the way Paul figured out that the blue gears must have a number of teeth that is a multiple of five, while the yellow ones must have a multiple of three. I think that makes sense, looking at the number of red gears around each one. So much swirly symmetry!

Spiral shadows!

Spiral shadows!

Be sure to check out some of Paul’s other math art while you’re on his site. Plus, you can read about a related gear sphere in this post by mathematician John Baez.

I figured there had to be a good math game that involves gears. I didn’t find quite what I expected, but I did find something I like. It’s a game that’s called—surprise, surprise—Gears! It isn’t an online game, but it’s easy to download.

Can you find the moves to make all the gears point downwards?

Can you find the moves to make all the gears point downwards?

This Wuzzit is in trouble!

Wuzzit Trouble!

And if you’re in the mood for some more gear gaming and you have access to a tablet or smartphone, you should check out Wuzzit Trouble. It’s another free download game, brought to you by “The Math Guy” Keith Devlin. Keith discusses the math ideas behind Wuzzit Trouble in this article on his blog and in this video.

Poster2

Last up this week, I’d like to share with you some souvenirs. If you went on a math vacation or a math tour, where would you go? One of the great things about math is that you can do it anywhere at all. Still, there are some mathy places in the world that would be especially neat to visit. And I don’t mean a place like the Hilbert Hotel (previously)—although you can get a t-shirt or coffee mug from there if you’d like! The mathematician David Hilbert actually spent much of his career in Göttingen, a town and university in Germany. It’s a place I’d love to visit one day. Carl Gauss lived in Göttingen, and so did Felix Klein and Emmy Noether—and lots more, too. A real math destination!

Lots of math has been inspired by or associated with particular places around the world. Just check out this fascinating list on Wikipedia.

Arctic Circle Theorem

The Arctic Circle Theorem

The Warsaw Circle

The Warsaw Circle

Cairo Pentagonal Tiling

The Cairo Pentagonal Tiling

Did you know that our word souvenir comes from the French word for “memory”? One thing that I like about math is that I don’t have to memorize very much—I can just work things out! But every once in a while, there is something totally arbitrary that I just have to remember. Here’s one memory-helper that has stuck with me for a long time.

May you, like our alligator friend, find some good math to munch on. Bon appetit!

Fullerenes, Fibonacci Walks, and a Fourier Toy

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Stan and James

Stan and James

Earlier this month, neuroscientists Stan Schein and James Gayed announced the discovery of a new class of polyhedra. We’ve often posted about Platonic solids here on Math Munch. The shapes that Stan and James found have the same symmetries as the icosahedron and dodecahedron, and they also have all equal edge lengths.

One of Stan and James's shapes, made of equilateral pentagons and hexagons.

One of Stan and James’s shapes, made of equilateral pentagons and hexagons.

These new shapes are examples of fullerenes, a kind of shape named after the geometer, architect, and thinker Buckminster Fuller. In the 1980s, chemists discovered that molecules made of carbon can occur in polyhedral shapes, both in the lab and in nature. Stan and James’s new fullerenes are modifications of some existing shapes first described in 1937 by Michael Goldberg. The faces of Goldberg’s shapes were warped, not flat, and Stan and James showed that flattening can be achieved—thus turning Goldberg’s shapes into true polyhedra—while also having all equal edge lengths. There’s great coverage of Stan and James’s discovery in this article at Science News and a fascinating survey of the media’s coverage of the discovery by Adam Lore on his blog. Adam’s post includes an interview with Stan!

Next up—how much fun is it to find a fractal that’s new to you? That happened to me recently when I ran across the Fibonacci word fractal.

A portion of a Fibonacci word curve.

A portion of a Fibonacci word curve.

Fibonacci “words”—really just strings of 0’s and 1’s—are constructed kind of like the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Instead of adding numbers previous numbers to get new ones, we link up—or “concatenate”—previous words. The first few Fibonacci words are 1, 0, 01, 010, 01001, and 01001010. Do you see how new words are made out of the two previous ones?

Here’s a variety of images of Fibonacci word fractals, and you can find more details about the fractal in this article. The infinite Fibonacci word has an entry at the OEIS, and you can find a Fibonacci word necklace on Etsy. Dale Gerdemann, a linguist at the University of Tübingen, has a whole series of videos that show off patterns created out of Fibonacci words. Here is one of my favorites:

Last but not least this week, check out this groovy applet!

Lucas's applet showing the relationship between epicycles and Fourier series

Lucas’s applet showing the relationship between epicycles and Fourier series

A basic layout of Ptolemy's model, including epicycles.

A basic layout of Ptolemy’s model, including epicycles.

Sometime around the year 200 AD, the astronomer Ptolemy proposed a way to describe the motion of the sun, moon, and planets. Here’s a video about his ideas. Ptolemy relied on many years of observations, a new geometrical tool we call “trigonometry”, and a lot of ingenuity. He said that the sun, moon, and planets move around the earth in circles that moved around on other circles—not just cycles, but epicycles. Ptolemy’s model of the universe was incredibly accurate and was state-of-the-art for centuries.

Joseph Fourier

Joseph Fourier

In 1807, Joseph Fourier turned the mathematical world on its head. He showed that periodic functions—curves with a repeated pattern—can be built by adding together a very simple class of curves. Not only this, but he showed that curves created in this way could have breaks and gaps even though they are built out of continuous curves called “sine” and “cosine”. (Sine and cosine are a part of the same trigonometry that Ptolemy helped to found.) Fourier series soon became a powerful tool in mathematics and physics.

A Fourier series that converges to a discontinuous function.

A Fourier series that converges to a discontinuous function.

And then in the early 21st century Lucas Vieira created an applet that combines and sets side-by-side the ideas of Ptolemy and Fourier. And it’s a toy, so you can play with it! What cool designs can you create? We’ve featured some of Lucas’s work in the past. Here is Lucas’s short post about his Fourier toy, including some details about how to use it.

Bon appetit!

Light Bulbs, Lanterns, and Lights Out

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

thomas-edison

Edison with his light bulb.

On this day in 1880, Thomas Edison was given a patent for his most famous bright idea—the light bulb.

Edison once said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration”—a good reminder that putting in some work is important both in math and in life. He also said, “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.” A humbling thought. Also, based on that quote, it sounds like Edison might have had a use for permilles or even permyraids in addition to percents!

Mike's octahedron.

Mike’s octahedron-in-a-light-buld.

In celebration of this illustrious anniversary, I’d like to share some light mathematical fare relating to, well, light bulbs. For starters, J. Mike Rollins of North Carolina has created each of the Platonic solids inside of light bulbs, ship-in-a-bottle style. Getting just the cube to work took him the better part of twelve hours! Talk about perspiration. Mike has also made a number of lovely Escher-inspired woodcuts. Check ’em out!

Evelyn's Schwartz lantern.

Evelyn’s Schwartz lantern.

Next up is a far-out example from calculus that’s also a good idea for an art project. It’s called the Schwartz lantern. I found out about this amazing object last fall when Evelyn Lamb tweeted and blogged about it.

The big idea of calculus is that we can find exact answers to tough problems by setting up a pattern of approximations that get better and better and then—zoop! take the process to its logical conclusion at infinity. But there’s a catch: you have to be careful about how you set up your pattern!

A "nicely" triangulated cylinder.

A “nicely” triangulated cylinder.

For example, if you take a cylinder and approximate its surface with a bunch of triangles carefully, you’ll end up with a surface that matches the cylinder in shape and size. But if you go about the process in a different way, you can end up with a surface that stays right near the cylinder but that has infinite area. That’s the Schwartz lantern, first proposed by Karl Hermann Amandus Schwarz of Cauchy-Schwartz fame. The infinite area happens because of all the crinkles that this devilish pattern creates. For some delightful technical details about the lantern’s construction, check out Evelyn’s post and this article by Conan Wu.

Maybe you’ll try folding a Schwartz lantern of your own. There’s a template and instructions on Conan’s blog to get you started. You’ll be glowing when you finish it up—especially if you submit a photo of it to our Readers’ Gallery. Even better, how about a video? You could make the internet’s first Schwartz lantern short film!

Robert Torrence and his Lights Out puzzle.

Robert and his Lights Out puzzle.

At the MOVES Conference last fall, Bruce Torrence of Randolf-Macon College gave a talk about the math of Lights Out. Lights Out is a puzzle—a close relative of Ray Ray—that’s played on a square grid. When you push one of the buttons in the grid it switches on or off, and its neighbors do, too. Bruce and his son Robert created an extension of this puzzle to some non-grid graphs. Here’s an article about their work and here’s an applet on the New York Times website where you can play Lights Out on the Peterson graph, among others. You can even create a Lights Out puzzle of your own! If it’s more your style, you can try a version of the original game called All Out on Miniclip.

The original Lights Out handheld game from 1995.

The original Lights Out handheld game from 1995.

There’s a huge collection of Lights Out resources on Jaap’s Puzzle Page (previously), including solution strategies, variations, and some great counting problems. Lights Out and Ray Ray are both examples of what’s called a “sigma-plus game” in the mathematical literature. Just as a bonus, there’s this totally other game called Light Up. I haven’t solved a single puzzle yet, but my limitations shouldn’t stop you from trying. Perspiration!

All this great math work might make you hungry, so…bon appetit!

Digital Art, Mastermind, and Pythagoras

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch… on (approximately) Math Munch’s second birthday! Hooray!

Check out this video of mathematical art made by artist Nathan Selikoff:

Cool, right? This piece is called “Beautiful Chaos.” The curves on the screen are made from equations (if you’ve ever graphed a line or a parabola you’ll know what I mean). As the viewer waves her hands around, the equations change– and as the equations change, so do the curves! The result is something that might remind you of the images your computer makes when you play music on it or maybe of something you’d make using a spirograph. All in all, a beautiful and interactive piece of mathematical art.

nathanNathan lives and works as a mathematical artist in Orlando, Florida. As he writes on his website, Nathan uses computer code along with other materials to make art that plays with the mathematical ideas of space, motion, and interaction between objects. To see more of how Nathan does this, check out his giant, interactive marionette or this song that explores the first, second, third, and fourth dimensions:

My school is really lucky to be hosting Nathan this week! We didn’t want any of you, dear readers, to miss out on the excitement, though– so Nathan has kindly agreed to answer your interview questions! Got a question for Nathan? Write it in the box below. He’ll answer seven of your best questions in two weeks!

565px-MastermindNext up, who doesn’t love to play Mastermind? It’s a great combination of logic, patterns, and trickery… but I just hate having to use all those tiny pegs. Well, guess what? You can play it online— no pegs (or opponent) necessary!

As I was playing Mastermind, I started wondering about strategy. What’s the best first guess to make? If I were as smart as a computer, is there a number of guesses in which I could guess any Mastermind code? (This kind of question reminds me of God’s Number and the Rubik’s cube…)

Well, it turns out there is a God’s Number for Mastermind – and that number is five. Just five. If you played perfectly and followed the strategy demonstrated by recreational mathematician Toby Nelson on his website, you could guess ANY Mastermind code in five guesses or less. Toby shares many more interesting questions about Mastermind on his website— I suggest you check it out.

What ARE those irrational numbers, so weird that they get their own bubble??

What ARE those irrational numbers, so weird that they get their own bubble??

Finally, sometime in your mathematical past you may have heard of irrational numbers. These are numbers like the square-root of 2 or pi or e that can’t be written as a fraction– or so people claim. When you start thinking about this claim, however, it may seem strange. There are A LOT of fractions– and none of them equal the square-root of 2? Really? What kind of number is that? It seems like only an irrational person would believe that, at least without proof.

Vi Hart to the rescue! Irrational numbers were encountered long, long ago by the ancient Greek mathematician (and cult leader) Pythagoras– and he didn’t like them much. In this great video, Vi tells all about Pythagoras and the controversial discovery of numbers that aren’t fractions.

If you didn’t follow her explanation of why the square-root of 2 is irrational on your first watch, don’t worry– it’s a complicated idea that’s worth a second (or third or fourth) run-through.

Thanks for a great two years of Math Munch! Bon appetit!

TesselManiac, Zeno’s Paradox, and Platonic Realms

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Before we begin, we’d like to thank all of you who have checked out the site in the past week. Since we’ve kicked off our share campaign, we’ve had so many new visitors and heard from many of them, too! Reading your feedback – whether a recommendation, some praise, a question, or just a brief, “Hello!” – brings us great joy and helps us to know that you all are out there.

Whether you’re a regular reader or visiting the site for the first time, we’d like to ask you for a little favor. If you see some math you like, share it with someone who you think would like it, too! Do you love the burst of excitement that you get from reading about a new mathematical idea, seeing an original piece of math artwork, or trying out a new game? Do you know someone who would love that, too? Then tell them about Math Munch – we’d love to spread the joy.

If you enjoy Math Munch, join in our “share campaign” this week.

You can read more about the share campaign here. There are lots of ways to participate, and you can let us know about your sharing through this form. We’d love to see the share total rise up to 1000 over the course of the next week.

Now for the post!

***

Lee boxThis beautiful tessellated wooden box was made by computer scientist and mathematical artist Kevin Lee. I met Kevin two weeks ago at the MOVES conference (which Justin and Paul have both written about already). Kevin teaches computer science at Normandale Community College in Minnesota. He makes woodcut tessellations (which won an award for the “Best Textile, Sculpture, or Other Medium” at the Joint Mathematics Meetings art exhibition this year!). He’s also used a combination of his knowledge of computer science and his love of Escher-type tessellations to make software that helps you create tessellations. His new software, TesselManiac!, is due out soon (watch this short movie Kevin made about it for the Bridges conference), but you can download an older version of the software here and play a preview version of The Flipping Tile Game.

tesselmaniac pictures

To play this game, you must fill in an outline of a tessellation with the piece given. You can use any of four symmetry motions – translation (or shift), rotation, reflection, or glide reflection (which reflects the tile and then translates it along a line parallel to the line of reflection). You get points for each correct tile placed (and lose points if you have to delete). Translations are the simplest, and only give you 5 points each. Reflections are the most difficult – you get 20 points for each one used!

dot to dotWhile you’re downloading The Flipping Tile Game, try one of Kevin’s Dot-to-Dot puzzles. These are definitely not your typical dot-to-dot. Only the portion of the image corresponding to one tile in the tessellation is numbered. Once you figure out the shape of that single tile, you have to figure out how to number the rest of the puzzle!

Lucky for us, Kevin has agreed to answer some questions about his life and work as a math artist and computer scientist. Leave a question for Kevin here. (We’ll take questions for the next two weeks.)

tortoiseI’ve recently been thinking about a paradox that has puzzled mathematicians for centuries. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s one of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno‘s paradoxes of motion, and it goes like this: Achilles (a really fast Greek hero) and a tortoise are going to run a race. Achilles agrees to give the tortoise a head-start, because the tortoise is so slow. Achilles then starts to run. But as Achilles catches up with the tortoise, the tortoise moves a little further. So the tortoise is still ahead. And as Achilles moves to catch up again, the tortoise moves even further! Sounds like Achilles will never catch up to the tortoise, let alone pass him… But that doesn’t make sense…

Will Achilles lose the race??? Check out this great video from Numberphile that explains both the paradox and the solution.

logo_PR_225_160While I was looking for information about this paradox, I stumbled across a great math resource site called Platonic Realms. The homepage of this site has a daily historical fact, mathematical quote, and puzzle.

The site hosts a math encyclopedia with explanations of all kinds of math terms and little biographies of famous mathematicians. You can also read “mini-texts” about different mathematical topics, such as this one about M. C. Escher (the inspiration behind the art at the beginning of this post!) or this one about coping with math anxiety.

I hope we here at Math Munch have given you something to tantalize your mathematical taste buds this week! If so, we’d love it if you would pass it along.

Thank you for reading, and bon appetit!

Rush hourP.S. – We’ve posted a new game, suggested to us by one of our readers! It’s an online version of Rush Hour. Check it out!