Tag Archives: puzzles

Functionized Photos, Projective Games, and Traffic

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Have you ever looked in a distorted mirror– one that stretched and squeezed your face so that you looked very, very silly? If you like that, check out this program called the Function Explorer that distorts your picture according to different functions!

Crazy Mikos

My cat under the “fraction” function

To use the program, you’ll have to turn on your webcam. Then, select one of the functions listed– maybe similarity, log, or fraction. Then, watch as the image in front of your webcam twists, expands, and repeats as the function distorts the picture!

What’s going on here? The program treats your picture like it’s on something called the complex plane— which is kind of like the regular two-dimensional plane we’re used to, except that some of the numbers multiply strangely. One of the dimensions on the complex plane is made of regular, normal numbers– which, in this situation, are called the “real numbers”– while the other dimension is made of different numbers, called “imaginary numbers.” These are the numbers that do weird things when you multiply them together. Maybe you’ve heard that you can’t take the square-root of a negative number. Well, on the complex plane you can. And when you do, you get an imaginary number!


Windows, under 1/z

If you’re curious about these crazy creatures called imaginary numbers and how they work to make images go wild on the complex plane, I recommend you check out this site. It gives a great interactive explanation of imaginary numbers (and teaches you about fractals, too!). But I also wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to spend a few hours holding things in front of your webcam and seeing what happens to them under different function transformations!

Gummy bears

Gummy bears! Which function did this?


Meet Donna

Next up, I’d like to share a fun collection of games with you. They’re all made by mathematician Donna Dietz, and they all have to do with a particular kind of math that I find very interesting– projective geometry! You can still enjoy the games even if you know nothing about projective geometry (and you might learn something at the same time).

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-19-29-pmThe rules are pretty simple: Donna gives you a bunch of cards with symbols on them. For example, in the version shown here, you get 13 cards with 4 symbols on them each. There are a bunch of different symbols. Your task is to pick four cards to discard and arrange the remaining nine so that the cards in each row, column, and diagonal share exactly one symbol.

Donna’s projective geometry games page has links to lots more games (if you think the game with cards in three rows and columns is too easy, try one with five) and information about them.

“What does this have to do with geometry?” you might be wondering. These games show a very important property of points and lines in projective geometry. In regular geometry (which you could also call Euclidean geometry), you can have two lines that don’t share any points– meaning that they’d be parallel. But this isn’t possible in projective geometry. All pairs of lines share exactly one point. How is this related to Donna’s games? If lines are rows, columns, and diagonals of cards, and points the symbols on them…

If you’d like to learn more about how and why Donna developed these games, check out this page!

Finally, I’ve been driving a lot lately. I live in the Bay Area, and there is SO MUCH TRAFFIC AAAAAAAA!!! I went searching for solutions, and I came across this great video by our friend CGP Grey (who also made these great videos about voting theory). There’s a lot of math going on here, even if it isn’t immediately apparent. Can you find the math? (Oh, and can you stop causing traffic jams? Thanks.)

Don’t Math Munch and drive, and 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!