Tag Archives: symmetry

Squircles, Coloring Books, and Snowfakes

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Squares and circles are pretty different. Squares are boxy and have their feet firmly on the ground. Circles are round and like to roll all over the place.



Since they’re so different, people have long tried to bridge the gap between squares and circles. There’s an ancient problem called “squaring the circle” that went unsolved for thousands of years. In the 1800s, the gap between squares and circles was explored by Gabriel Lamé. Gabriel invented a family of curves that both squares and circles belong to. In the 20th century, Danish designer Piet Hein gave Lamé’s family of curves the name superellipses and used them to lay out parts of cities. One particular superellipse that’s right in the middle is called a squircle. Squircles have been used to design everything from dinner plates to touchpad buttons.

The space of superellipsoids.

The space of superellipsoids.

Piet had the following to say about the gap between squares and circles:

Things made with straight lines fit well together and save space. And we can move easily — physically or mentally — around things made with round lines. But we are in a straitjacket, having to accept one or the other, when often some intermediate form would be better. … The super-ellipse solved the problem. It is neither round nor rectangular, but in between. Yet it is fixed, it is definite — it has a unity.

"Squaring the Circle" by Troika.

“Squaring the Circle” by Troika.

These circles aren't what they seem to be.

These circles aren’t what they seem to be.

There’s another kind of squircular object that I ran across recently. It’s a sculpture called “Squaring the Circle”, and it was created by a trio of artists known as Troika. Check out the images on this page, and then watch a video of the incredible transformation. You can find more examples of room-sized perspective-changing objects in this article.

Next up: it’s been a snowy week here on the east coast, so I thought I’d share some ideas for a great indoor activity—coloring!

Marshall and Violet.

Marshall and Violet.

Marshall Hampton is a math professor at University of Minnesota, Duluth. Marshall studies n-body problems—a kind of physics problem that goes all the way back to Isaac Newton and that led to the discovery of chaos. He also uses math to study the genes that cause mammals to hibernate. Marshall made a coloring book full of all kinds of lovely mathematical images for his daughter Violet. He’s also shared it with the world, in both pdf and book form. Check it out!

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Inspired by Mashrall’s coloring book, Alex Raichev made one of his own, called Contours. It features contour plots that you can color. Contour plots are what you get when you make outlines of areas that share the same value for a given function. Versions of contour plots often appear on weather maps, where the functions are temperature, atmospheric pressure, or precipitation levels.

Contour plots are useful. Alex shows that they can be beautiful, too!

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And there are even more mathematical patterns to explore in the coloring sheets at Patterns for Colouring.

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Last up, that’s not a typo in this week’s post title. I really do want to share some snowfakes with you—some artificial snowflake models created with math by Janko Gravner and David Griffeath. You can find out more by reading this paper they authored, or just skim it for the lovely images, some of which I’ve shared below.

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I ran across these snowfakes at the Mathematical Imagery page of the American Mathematical Society. There are lots more great math images to explore there.

Bon appetit!

Reflection sheet – Squircles, Coloring Books, and Snowfakes

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.


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!

Origami Stars, Tessellation Stars, and Chaotic Stars

Welcome to this week’s star-studded Math Munch!

downloadModular origami stars have taken the school I teach in by storm in recent months! We love making them so much that I thought I’d share some instructional videos with you. My personal favorite is this transforming eight-pointed star. It slides between a disk with a hole the middle (great for throwing) and a gorgeous, pinwheel-like eight-pointed star. Here’s how you make one:

Another favorite is this lovely sixteen-pointed star. You can make it larger or smaller by adding or removing pieces. It’s quite impressive when completed and not that hard to make. Give it a try:

type6thContinuing on our theme of stars, check out these beautiful star tessellations. They come from a site made by Jim McNeil featuring oh-so-many things you can do with polygons and polyhedra. On this page, Jim tells you all about tessellations, focusing on a category of tessellations called star and retrograde tessellations.

type3b400px-Tiling_Semiregular_3-12-12_Truncated_Hexagonal.svgTake, for example, this beautiful star tessellation that he calls the Type 3. Jim describes how one way to make this tessellation is to replace the dodecagons in a tessellation called the 12.12.3 tessellation (shown to the left) with twelve-pointed stars. He uses the 12/5 star, which is made by connecting every fifth dot in a ring of twelve dots. Another way to make this tessellation is in the way shown above. In this tessellation, four polygons are arranged around a single point– a 12/5 star, followed by a dodecagon, followed by a 12/7 star (how is this different from a 12/5 star?), and, finally, a 12/11-gon– which is exactly the same as a dodecagon, just drawn in a different way.

I think it’s interesting that the same pattern can be constructed in different ways, and that allowing for cool shapes like stars and different ways of attaching them can open up crazy new worlds of tessellations! Maybe you’ll want to try drawing some star tessellations of your own after seeing some of these.

Screenshot 2014-05-12 10.48.46Finally, to finish off our week of everything stars, check out the star I made with this double pendulum simulator.  What’s so cool about the double pendulum? It’s a pendulum– a weight attached to a string suspended from a point– with a second weight hung off the bottom of the first. Sounds simple, right? Well, the double pendulum actually traces a chaotic path for most sizes of the weights, lengths of the strings, and angles at which you drop them. This means that very small changes in the initial conditions cause enormous changes in the path of the pendulum, and that the path of the pendulum is not a predictable pattern.

Using the simulator, you can set the values of the weights, lengths, and angles and watch the path traced on the screen. If you select “star” under the geometric settings, the simulator will set the parameters so that the pendulum traces this beautiful star pattern. Watch what happens if you wiggle the settings just a little bit from the star parameters– you’ll hardly recognize the path. Chaos at work!

Happy star-gazing, and bon appetit!