Tag Archives: math art

Sphericon, National Curve Bank, and Cardioid String Art

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Behold the Sphericon!

What is that? Well, it rolls like a sphere, but is made of two cones attached with a twist– hence, the spheri-con! The one in the video is made out of pie (not sure why…), but you can make sphericons out of all kinds of materials.

Wooden sphericonIt was developed by a few people at different times– like many brilliant new objects. But it entered the world of math when mathematician Ian Stewart wrote about it in his column in Scientific American. The wooden sphericon was made by Steve Mathias, an engineer from Sacramento, California, who read Ian’s article and thought sphericons would be fun to make. To learn more about how Steve made those beautiful wooden sphericons, check out his site!

Even if you’re not a woodworker, like Steve, you can still make your own sphericon. You can start with two cones and make one this way, by attaching the cones at their bases, slicing the whole thing in half, rotating one of the halves 90 degrees, and attaching again:How to make a sphericon

Or you can print out this image, cut it out, fold it up, and glue (click on the image for a larger printable size):

Sphericon pattern

If you do make your own sphericon (which I recommend, because they’re really cool), watch the path it makes as it rolls. See how it wiggles? What shape do you think the path is?

ncbmastertitleI found out about the sphericon while browsing through an awesome website– the National Curve Bank. It’s just what it sounds like– an online bank full of curves! You can even make a deposit– though, unlike a real bank, you can take out as many curves as you like. The goal of the National Curve Bank is to provide great pictures and animations of curves that you’d never find in a normal math book. Think of how hard it would be to understand how a sphericon works if you couldn’t watch a video of it rolling?

epicycloidaThere are lots of great animations of curves and other shapes in the National Curve Bank– like the sphericon! Another of my favorites is the “cycloid family.” A cycloid is the curve traced by a point on a circle as the circle rolls– like if you attached a pen to the wheel of your bike and rode it next to a wall, so that the pen drew on the wall. It’s a pretty cool curve– but there are lots of other related curves that are even cooler. The epicycloid (image on the right) is the curve made by the pen on your bike wheel if you rode the bike around a circle. Nice!

You should explore the National Curve Bank yourself, and find your own favorite curve! Let us know in the comments if you find one you like.

String cardioid

String art cardioid

Finally, to round out this week’s post on circle-y curves (pun intended), check out another of my favorite curves– the cardioid. A cardioid looks like a heart (hence the name). There are lots of ways to make a cardioid (some of which we posted about for Valentine’s Day a few years ago). But my favorite way is to make it out of string!

String art is really fun. If you’ve never done any string art, check out the images made by Julia Dweck’s class that we posted last year. Or, try making your own string art cardioid! This site shows you how to draw circles, ovals, cardioids, and spirals using just straight lines– you could follow the same instructions, replacing the straight lines you’d draw with pieces of string attached to tacks! If you’re not sure how the string part would work, check out this site for basic string art instructions.

Bon appetit!

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.


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!

Celebration of Mind, Cutouts, and the Problem of the Week

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!  We’re going to revisit the work of Martin Gardner, look at some beautiful mathematical art, and see if we can dig into a college’s “problem of the week” program.

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner

Last October, I wrote about Martin Gardner. He is one of the great popularizers of mathematics, known for his puzzles, columns in Scientific American, and over 100 books. Around the time of his birthday, October 21st, each year, people around the world participate in a global “Gathering4Gardner” — a so-called Celebration of Mind.

Two Sipirals

One of Martin Gardner’s many puzzles

These are gatherings of two or more people taking time to dig into the kinds of mathematics that Martin Gardner loved so much. Below you can find lots of ways to participate and share with family, friends, or strangers.

First, If you want to learn more about Gardner himself, here’s a very detailed interview. You can also try solving some of Gardner’s great puzzles. We featured both of these last year, but I recently found a whole new page of resources and activities for the Celebration of Mind.

In the video on the left you can see a geometric vanish like those we’ve previously featured (Get off the Earth, and Chocolate). The second is a surprising play on the Möbius Strip which we’ve also featured before (Art and Videos + Möbius Hearts). I hope you’ll find some time this week to celebrate Martin Gardner’s love of math and help grow your own. (Though, I guess if you’re reading this, you already are!)

Up next, check out the work of artist Elena Mir. This video shows a series of artworks she created over the last four years. They feature stacks of cut paper to form geometric shapes, and they make me wonder what I could make out of cut paper. If you make something, please let us now.

It reminds me of the work of Matt Shlian that we featured in our very first post.  You can watch Matt’s TED Talk or visit his website to see all sorts of cutouts and other paper sculptures, plus incredible videos like the one below. It might be my favorite video I’ve ever posted on Math Munch.

Finally, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota has a weekly problem that they offer to their students, and the problem archives can be found online. These are for college students, so some of them are advanced or phrased in technical language, but I think we can find some that all of us can dig in to. Give these a try:

Have a mathematical week, and let us know if you do anything for the Celebration of Mind. Bon appetit!

Andrew Hoyer, Cameron Browne, & Sphere Inversion

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch! Fractals, origami, math art, games, and a mind-bending video are all ahead, so let’s get into it.

Andrew Hoyer

Andrew Hoyer

First up, let’s take a look at the work of Andrew Hoyer.  According to his website, he’s a “software engineer in his mid-twenties living it up in sometimes sunny San Francisco.” I came across his work when I found his beautiful and completely engaging introduction to simple fractals.  (Go on! Click. Then read, experiment and play!)

Cantor Set

A Cantor set

At the bottom of that page, Andrew links to a wonderful, long list of fractals, arranged by Hausdorff dimension, which is a way of measuring fractals as being something like 2.5 dimensions.  A line is 1 dimensional.  A plane is 2D, and you can find many fractals with dimension in between!!  Weird, right?

I was also really pleased to find Andrew’s Instagram feed, which features some of his beautiful origami creations.  Andrew’s agreed to answer your questions for an upcoming Q&A, so ask away!

Compound of 5 tetrahedra Truncated Icosahedron Cube Dodecahedron
Cameron Browne

Cameron Browne

Up next, meet Cameron Browne. He’s an accomplished researcher who designs and studies games. Take a look at the many many games Cameron has created. The rules and descriptions are there, and Cameron sent along links to playable versions of a few, which you can find by clicking the pictures below.  For the third one, you’ll need to search for “Margo” or “Spargo.” For his research, Cameron investigates the possibilities of artificial intelligence, and how a computer can be used to generate games and puzzles.



Margo and Spargo

Margo and Spargo

Cameron is also an artist, and he has a page full of his graphic designs.  I found Cameron through his page of Truchet curves.  I love the way his pages are full of diagrams and just enough information to start making sense of things, even if it’s not perfectly clear.  Cameron also has MANY pages of wonderful fractal-ish graphics: Impossible Fractals, Cantor Knots, Fractal Board Games, Woven Horns, Efficient Trees, and on and on…  And he has agreed to do a Q&A with us, so please, submit a question. What are you wondering?

A Cantor Knot

A Cantor Knot

A Truchet curve "Mona Lisa"

A Truchet curve “Mona Lisa”

An "impossible" fractal

An “impossible” fractal

And, as if that wasn’t enough mathy awesomeness, check out this video about turning a sphere inside out.  A bit of personal history, I actually used this video  (though it was only on VHS back then, checked out from the library) as part of the research for my independent research project during my senior year of college.  It gets pretty tricky, but if you watch it all the way through it starts to make some sense.

Have a great week.  Bon appetit!

Reflection sheet – Andrew Hoyer, Cameron Browne, & Sphere Inversion

Pentago, Geometry Daily, and The OEIS

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Pentago Board

Hurricane Sandy is currently slamming the East coast, but the Math Munch Team is safe and sound, so the math must go on.  First up, if you’ve visited our games page lately, you may have noticed a recent addition.  Pentago is a 2-player strategy with simple rules and an enticing twist.

  • Rules: Take turns playing stones.  The first person to get 5 in a row wins.  (5 is the “pent” part.)
  • Twist: After you place a stone you must spin one of the 4 blocks.  This makes things very interesting.

Why don’t you play a few games before you read on?  You can play the computer on their website, play with a friend by email, or download the Pentago iPhone app.  But if you’re ready, let’s dig into some Pentago strategy and analysis.

Mindtwister CEO, Monica Lucas

Mindtwister (the company that sells Pentago) put out a free strategy guide that names 4 different kinds of winning lines and rates their relative strengths.  The weakest strategy is called Monica’s Five, and it’s named after Mindtwister CEO and Pentago lover, Monica Lucas.  You can read our Q&A for more expert game strategies and insights.  We also had a chance to speak with Tomas Floden, the inventor of Pentago, so it’s a double Q&A week.

As you play, you start to build your own strategy guide, so let me share three basic rules from mine.  I call them the first 3 Pentago Theorems.  (A theorem is a proven math fact.)

  1. If you have a move to win, take it!  This one is obvious, but you’ll see why I include it.
  2. If your opponent is only missing one stone from a line of 5 you must play there.  It seems like you could play somewhere else and spin the line apart, but your opponent can play the stone and spin back!  The only exception to this rule is rule 1.  If you can win, just do that!
  3. 4 in a row, with both ends open will (almost always) win.  This is a classic double trap.  Either end will finish the winning line, so by rule 2 both must be filled, but this is impossible.  The exceptions of course will come when your opponent is able to win right away, so you still have to pay close attention.

Up next, check out the beautiful math art of Geometry Daily.

#288 Fundamental

#132 Eight Squares

#259 Dudeney’s Dissection

#296 Downpour

#236 Nova

#124 Cuboctahedron

#136 Tesseract

#26 Pentaflower

#92 Circular Spring

The site is the playground for the geometrical ideas of Tilman Zitzmann, a German designer and teacher, who’s been creating a new image every day for almost a year now!  He also took some time to write about his creative process, so if you’re interested, have a read.  Visit the Geometry Daily archives to view all the images.

Finally, an amazing resource – the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences.  What’s the pattern here?  1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, …  Any idea?  Do you know what the 50th number would be?  Well if you type this sequence into the OEIS, it’ll tell you every known sequence that matches.  Here’s what you get in this case.  These are the “triangular numbers,” also the number of edges in a complete graph.  It also tells you formula for the sequence:

  • a(n) = C(n+1,2) = n(n+1)/2 = 0+1+2+…+n.

If you make n=1, then you get 1.  If n=2, then you get 3.  If n=5, you get the 5th number, so to get the 50th number in the sequence, we just make n=50 in the formula.  n(n+1)/2 becomes 50(50+1)/2 = 1275.  Nifty.  Who’s got a pattern that needs investigating?

Have a great week, and bon appetit!