Tag Archives: recreational mathematics

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


Solomon Golomb, Rulers, and 52 Master Pieces

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch.

I was saddened to learn this week of the passing of Solomon Golomb.

Solomon Golomb.

Solomon Golomb.

Can you imagine the world without Tetris? What about the world without GPS or cell phones?

Here at Math Munch we are big fans of pentominoes and polyominoes—we’ve written about them often and enjoy sharing them and tinkering with them. While collections of glued-together squares have been around since ancient times, Solomon invented the term “polyominoes” in 1953, investigated them, wrote about them—including this book—and popularized them with puzzle enthusiasts. But one of Solomon’s outstanding qualities as a mathematician is that he pursued a range of projects that blurred the easy and often-used distinction between “pure” and “applied” mathematics. While polyominoes might seem like just a cute plaything, Solomon’s work with discrete structures helped to pave the way for our digital world. Solomon compiled the first book on digital communications and his work led to such technologies as radio telescopes. You can hear him talk about the applications that came from his work and more in this video:

Here is another video, one that surveys Solomon’s work and life. It’s fast-paced and charming and features Solomon in a USC Trojan football uniform! Here is a wonderful short biography of Solomon written by Elwyn Berlekamp. And how about a tutorial on a 16-bit Fibonacci linear feedback shift register—which Solomon mentions as the work he’s most proud of—in Minecraft!

Another kind of mathematical object that Solomon invented is a Golomb ruler. If you think about it, an ordinary 12-inch ruler is kind of inefficient. I mean, do we really need all of those markings? It seems like we could just do away with the 7″ mark, since if we wanted to measure something 7 inches long, we could just measure from the 1″ mark to the 8″ mark. (Or from 2″ to 9″.) So what would happen if we got rid of redundancies of this kind? How many marks do you actually need in order to measure every length from 1″ to 12″?

An optimal Golomb ruler of order 4.

An optimal Golomb ruler of order 4.

Portrait of Solomon by Ken Knowlton.

Portrait of Solomon by Ken Knowlton.

I was pleased to find that there’s actually a distributed computing project at distributed.net to help find new Golomb Rulers, just like the GIMPS project to find new Mersenne primes. It’s called OGR for “Optimal Golomb Ruler.” Maybe signing up to participate would be a nice way to honor Solomon’s memory. It’s hard to know what to do when someone passionate and talented and inspiring dies. Impossible, even. We can hope, though, to keep a great person’s memory and spirit alive and to help continue their good work. Maybe this week you’ll share a pentomino puzzle with a friend, or check out the sequences on the OEIS that have Solomon’s name attached to them, or host a Tetris or Blokus party—whatever you’re moved to do.

Thinking about Golomb rulers got me to wondering about what other kinds of nifty rulers might exist. Not long ago, at Gathering for Gardner, Matt Parker spoke about a kind of ruler that foresters use to measure the diameter of tree. Now, that sounds like quite the trick—seeing how the diameter is inside of the tree! But the ruler has a clever work-around: marking things off in multiples of pi! You can read more about this kind of ruler in a blog post by Dave Richeson. I love how Dave got inspired and took this “roundabout ruler” idea to the next level to make rulers that can measure area and volume as well. Generalizing—it’s what mathematicians do!

 img_3975  measuringtapes1

I was also intrigued by an image that popped up as I was poking around for interesting rulers. It’s called a seam allowance curve ruler. Some patterns for clothing don’t have a little extra material planned out around the edges so that the clothes can be sewn up. (Bummer, right?) To pad the edges of the pattern is easy along straight parts, but what about curved parts like armholes? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a curved ruler? Ta-da!

A seam allowance curve ruler.

A seam allowance curve ruler.

David Cohen

David Cohen

Speaking of Gathering for Gardner: it was announced recently that G4G is helping to sponsor an online puzzle challenge called 52 Master Pieces. It’s an “armchair puzzle hunt” created by David Cohen, a physician in Atlanta. It will all happen online and it’s free to participate. There will be lots of puzzle to solve, and each one is built around the theme of a “master” of some occupation, like an architect or a physician. Here are a couple of examples:


Notice that both of these puzzles involve pentominoes!

The official start date to the contest hasn’t been announced yet, but you can get a sneak peek of the site—for a price! What’s the price, you ask? You have to solve a puzzle, of course! Actually, you have your choice of two, and each one is a maze. Which one will you pick to solve? Head on over and give it a go!

Maze A

Maze A

Maze B

Maze B

And one last thing before I go: if you’re intrigued by that medicine puzzle, you might really like checking out 100 different ways this shape can be 1/4 shaded. They were designed by David Butler, who teaches in the Maths Learning Centre at the University of Adelaide. Which one do you like best? Can you figure out why each one is a quarter shaded? It’s like art and a puzzle all at once! Can you come up with some quarter-shaded creations of your own? If you do, send them our way! We’d love to see them.

Six ways to quarter the cross pentomino. 94 more await you!

Eight ways to quarter the cross pentomino. 92 more await you!

Bon appetit!

Continents, Math Explorers’ Club, and “I use math for…”

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!


Steven Strogatz.

All of our munches this week come from the recent tweets of mathematician, author, and friend of the blog Steven Strogatz. Steve works at Cornell University as an applied mathematician, tackling questions like “If people shared taxis with strangers, how much money could be saved?” and “What caused London’s Millennium Bridge to wobble on its opening day?”

On top of his research, Steve is great at sharing math with others. (This week I learned one great piece of math from him, and then another, and suddenly there was a very clear theme to my post!) Steve has written for the New York Times and was recently awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize as someone “whose voice and vision can tell us about science’s aesthetic and philosophical dimensions, providing not merely new information but cause for reflection, even revelation.”

NMFLogo_Horiz_RGB_300DPI2This Saturday, Steve will be presenting at the first-ever National Math Festival. The free and fun main event is at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and there are related math events all around the country this weekend. Check and see if there’s one near you!

Here are a few pieces of math that Steve liked recently. I liked them as well, and I hope you will, too.

First up, check out this lovely image:

tesselation1-blog480It appeared on Numberplay and was created by Hamid Naderi Yeganeh, a student at University of Qom in Iran. Look at the way the smaller and smaller tiles fit together to make the design. It’s sort of like a rep-tile, or this scaly spiral. And do those shapes look familiar? Hamid was inspired by the shapes of the continents of Africa and South America (if you catch my continental drift). Maybe you can create your own Pangaea-inspired tiling.

If you think that’s cool, you should definitely check out Numberplay, where there’s a new math puzzle to enjoy each week!

Next, up check out the Math Explorers’ Club, a collection of great math activities for people of all ages. The Club is a project of Cornell University’s math department, where Steve teaches.

The first item every sold on the auction site eBay. Click through for the story!

The first item every sold on the auction site eBay. Click through for the story!

One of the bits of math that jumped out to me was this page about auctions. There’s so much strategy and scheming that’s involved in auctions! I remember being blown away when I first learned about Vickrey auctions, where the winner pays not what they bid but what the second-highest bidder did!

If auctions aren’t your thing, there’s lots more great math to browse at the Math Explorer’s Club—everything from chaos and fractals to error correcting codes. Even Ehrenfeucht-Fraïssé games, which are brand-new to me!

And finally this week: have you ever wondered “What will I ever use math for?” Well, SIAM—the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics—has just the video for you. They asked people attending one of their meetings to finish the sentence, “I use math for…”. Here are 32 of their answers in just 60 seconds.

Thanks for sharing all this great math, Steve! And bon appetit, everyone!