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!

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!

Zentangle, Graph Paper, and Pancake Art

My recent doodling.

Some recent doodling, by me.

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

As you start a new school year, you might be looking for some new mathy doodle games to play in the margins of your notebooks. Doodling helps me to listen sometimes, and I love making neat patterns. I especially like seeing what new shapes I can make.

This summer I was very happy to run across Zentangle®—”an easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns.” I’ve learned a lot about Zentangle from a blog called Tangle Bucket by Sandy Hunter. She shares how to doodle snircles, snafoozles, and oodles. There’s a whole dictionary of zentangle shapes over at tanglepatterns.com.

My favorite idea in Zentangle is trying to combine two kinds of designs. Sometimes this is described as one pattern “versus” another one. For instance, check out these:


Maybe you’ll pick some tangle patterns to combine with each other. If you try some, maybe you’ll share them in our Readers’ Gallery.

Sandy writes:

It’s so true that the more I tangle, the more I see the potential in patterns all around me. I catch myself mentally deconstructing them (whether I want to or not) to figure out if they can be broken down into simple steps without too much effort. That’s the trademark of a good tangle pattern.

Try some of Sandy’s weekly challenges, or check out Tiffany Lovering’s time-lapse videos—here’s one with music and one with an interview. Can you learn the names of any of the shapes she creates? I spy a Rick’s Paradox. There are lots of ways to begin zentangling—I hope you enjoy giving it a try.

Squares and dots and crosses, oh my!

Squares & dots & crosses, oh my!

If zentangling is too freeform for your doodling tastes, then let me share with you one of my longtime favorite websites. I’ve used it for years to help me to do math and to teach math, and it’s great for math doodling, too. I might even call it a trusty friend, one that I met one day through the simple online search: “free online graph paper”.

That’s right, it’s Free Online Graph Paper.

Something I love about the site is that it lets you design different aspects of your graph paper. Then you can print it out. First you get to decide what kind of grid you would like: square? triangular? circular? Then you get to tinker with lots of variables, like how big the grid cells are, how dark the lines are, and what color they are. And more!

Free Online Graph Paper was created by Kevin MacLeod, who composes music and shares it for free. That way other people can use it for creative projects. That’s really awesome! I enjoyed listening to Kevin’s “Winner Winner“. It’s always good to be reminded that everything you use or enjoy was almost certainly made by a person—including custom graph paper websites!

A 7/3 star spirocake.

A 7/3 star spirocake.

Last up this week is some doodly math that you can really munch on. Everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that the most important food group is roulette curves.

To get your daily recommended allowance of groovy math, look no further than the edible doodles of Nathan Shields and his family over at Saipancakes.

I can wait until the Shields family tackles the cissoid of Diocles.

Bon appetit!

The World Cup Group Stage, Math at First Sight, and Geokone

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch! We’ve got some World Cup math from a tremendous recreational mathematics blog and a new mathematical art tool. Get ready to dig in!

Brazuca: The 2014 World Cup Ball

Brazuca: The 2014 World Cup Ball

I’ve been meaning to share the really fantastic Puzzle Zapper Blog, because it’s so full of cool ideas, but the timing is perfect, because IT’S WORLD CUP TIME!!! and the most recent post is about the math of the world cup group stage! It’s called “World Cup Group Scores, and “Birthday Paradox” Paradoxes,” and I hope you’ll give it a read. (For some background on the Birthday Paradox, watch this Numberphile video called 23 and Football Birthdays.)

The thing that got me interested in the article was actually just this chart. I think it’s really cool, probably because I always find myself two games through the group stage, thinking of all the possible outcomes. If you do nothing else with this article, come to understand this chart. I was kind of surprised how many possible outcomes there are.

All Possible World Cup Group Stage Results

All Possible World Cup Group Stage Results

Long story short (though you should read the long story), there’s about a 40% chance that all 8 world cup groups will finish with different scores.

Alexandre Owen Muñiz, Author of Puzzle Zapper.  (click for an interview video about Alexandre's interactive fiction)

Alexandre Owen Muñiz, Author of Puzzle Zapper.  (click for an interview video about Alexandre’s interactive fiction)

Puzzle Zapper is the recreational mathematics blog of Alexandre Owen Muñiz. You can also find much of his work on his Math at First Sight site. He has a lot of great stuff with polyominoes and other polyforms (see the nifty pics below). Alexandre is also a writer of interactive fiction, which is basically a sort of text-based video game. Click on Alexandre’s picture to learn more.

The Complete Set of "Hinged Tetriamonds"

The complete set of “hinged tetrominoes”

A lovely family portrait of the hinged tetriamonds.

A lovely, symmetric family portrait of the “hinged tetriamonds”

I hope you’ll poke around Alexandre’s site and find something interesting to learn about.

For our last item this week, I’ve decided to share a new mathematical art tool called Geokone. This app is a recursive, parametric drawing tool. It’s recursive, because it is based on a repeating structure, similar to those exhibited by fractals, and it’s parametric, because the tool bar on the right has a number of parameters that you can change to alter the image. The artistic creation is in playing with the parameter values and deciding what is pleasing. Below are some examples I created and exported.

geokone2 geokone1


I have to say, Geokone is not the easiest thing in the world to use, but if you spend some time playing AND thinking, you can almost certainly figure some things out! As always, if you make something cool, please email it to us!

Now go create something!  Click to go to Geokone.net.

I hope you find something tasty this week. Bon appetit!

Girls’ Angle, Spiral Tilings, and Coins

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

GirlsAngleCoverGirls’ Angle is a math club for girls. Since 2007 it has helped girls to grow their love of math through classes, events, mentorship, and a vibrant mathematical community. Girls’ Angle is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but its ideas and resources reach around the world through the amazing power of the internet. (And don’t you worry, gentlemen—there’s plenty for you to enjoy on the site as well.)

Amazingly, the site contains an archive of every issue of Girls’ Angle Bulletin, a wonderful bimonthly journal to “foster and nurture girls’ interest in mathematics.” In their most recent issue, you’ll find an interview with mathematician Karen E. Smith, along with several articles and puzzles about balance points of shapes.

There’s so much to dig into at Girls’ Angle! In addition to the Bulletins, there are two pages of mathematical videos. The first page shares a host of videos of women in mathematics sharing a piece of math that excited them when they were young. The most recent one is by Bridget Tenner, who shares about Pick’s Theorem. The second page includes several videos produced by Girls’ Angle, including this one called “Summer Vacation”.

Girls’ Angle can even help you buy a math book that you’d like, if you can’t afford it. For so many reasons, I hope you’ll find some time to explore the Girls’ Angle site over your summer break. (And while you’ve got your explorer’s hat on, maybe you’ll tour around Math Munch, too!)

I did a Google search recently for “regular tilings.” I needed a few quick pictures of the usual triangle, square, and hexagon tilings for a presentation I was making. As I scrolled along, this image jumped out at me:


What is that?! It certainly is a tiling, and all the tiles are the “same”—even if they are different sizes. Neat!

Clicking on the image, I found myself transported to a page all about spiral tilings at the Geometry Junkyard. The site is a whole heap of geometrical odds and ends—and a place that I’ve stumbled across many times over the years. Here are a few places to get started. I’m sure you’ll enjoy poking around the site to find some favorite “junk” of your own.



Circles and spheres

Circles & spheres



Last up this week, you may have seen this coin puzzle before. Can you make the triangle point downwards by moving just three pennies?triangleflip

There are lots of variants of this puzzle. You can find some in an online puzzle game called Coins. In the game you have to make arrangements of coins, but the twist is that you can only move a coin to a spot where would it touch at least two other coins. I’m enjoying playing Coins—give it a try!

I solved this Coins puzzle in four moves. Can you? Can you do better?

I solved this Coins puzzle in four moves. Can you? Can you do better?

That’s it for this week’s Math Munch. Bon appetit!