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!

Fullerenes, Fibonacci Walks, and a Fourier Toy

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Stan and James

Stan and James

Earlier this month, neuroscientists Stan Schein and James Gayed announced the discovery of a new class of polyhedra. We’ve often posted about Platonic solids here on Math Munch. The shapes that Stan and James found have the same symmetries as the icosahedron and dodecahedron, and they also have all equal edge lengths.

One of Stan and James's shapes, made of equilateral pentagons and hexagons.

One of Stan and James’s shapes, made of equilateral pentagons and hexagons.

These new shapes are examples of fullerenes, a kind of shape named after the geometer, architect, and thinker Buckminster Fuller. In the 1980s, chemists discovered that molecules made of carbon can occur in polyhedral shapes, both in the lab and in nature. Stan and James’s new fullerenes are modifications of some existing shapes first described in 1937 by Michael Goldberg. The faces of Goldberg’s shapes were warped, not flat, and Stan and James showed that flattening can be achieved—thus turning Goldberg’s shapes into true polyhedra—while also having all equal edge lengths. There’s great coverage of Stan and James’s discovery in this article at Science News and a fascinating survey of the media’s coverage of the discovery by Adam Lore on his blog. Adam’s post includes an interview with Stan!

Next up—how much fun is it to find a fractal that’s new to you? That happened to me recently when I ran across the Fibonacci word fractal.

A portion of a Fibonacci word curve.

A portion of a Fibonacci word curve.

Fibonacci “words”—really just strings of 0’s and 1’s—are constructed kind of like the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Instead of adding numbers previous numbers to get new ones, we link up—or “concatenate”—previous words. The first few Fibonacci words are 1, 0, 01, 010, 01001, and 01001010. Do you see how new words are made out of the two previous ones?

Here’s a variety of images of Fibonacci word fractals, and you can find more details about the fractal in this article. The infinite Fibonacci word has an entry at the OEIS, and you can find a Fibonacci word necklace on Etsy. Dale Gerdemann, a linguist at the University of Tübingen, has a whole series of videos that show off patterns created out of Fibonacci words. Here is one of my favorites:

Last but not least this week, check out this groovy applet!

Lucas's applet showing the relationship between epicycles and Fourier series

Lucas’s applet showing the relationship between epicycles and Fourier series

A basic layout of Ptolemy's model, including epicycles.

A basic layout of Ptolemy’s model, including epicycles.

Sometime around the year 200 AD, the astronomer Ptolemy proposed a way to describe the motion of the sun, moon, and planets. Here’s a video about his ideas. Ptolemy relied on many years of observations, a new geometrical tool we call “trigonometry”, and a lot of ingenuity. He said that the sun, moon, and planets move around the earth in circles that moved around on other circles—not just cycles, but epicycles. Ptolemy’s model of the universe was incredibly accurate and was state-of-the-art for centuries.

Joseph Fourier

Joseph Fourier

In 1807, Joseph Fourier turned the mathematical world on its head. He showed that periodic functions—curves with a repeated pattern—can be built by adding together a very simple class of curves. Not only this, but he showed that curves created in this way could have breaks and gaps even though they are built out of continuous curves called “sine” and “cosine”. (Sine and cosine are a part of the same trigonometry that Ptolemy helped to found.) Fourier series soon became a powerful tool in mathematics and physics.

A Fourier series that converges to a discontinuous function.

A Fourier series that converges to a discontinuous function.

And then in the early 21st century Lucas Vieira created an applet that combines and sets side-by-side the ideas of Ptolemy and Fourier. And it’s a toy, so you can play with it! What cool designs can you create? We’ve featured some of Lucas’s work in the past. Here is Lucas’s short post about his Fourier toy, including some details about how to use it.

Bon appetit!

Math Meets Art, Quarto, and Snow!

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

article-0-19F9E81700000578-263_634x286… And, if you happen to write the date in the European way (day/month/year), happy Noughts and Crosses Day! (That’s British English for Tic-Tac-Toe Day.) In Europe, today’s date is 11/12/13– and it’s the last time that the date will be three consecutive numbers in this century! We in America are lucky. Our last Noughts and Crosses Day was November 12, 2013 (11/12/13), and we get another one next year on December 13 (12/13/14). To learn more about Noughts and Crosses Day and find out about an interesting contest, check out this site. And, to our European readers, happy Noughts and Crosses Day!

p3p13Speaking of Noughts and Crosses (or Tic-Tac-Toe), I have a new favorite game– Quarto! It’s a mix of Tic-Tac-Toe and another favorite game of mine, SET, and it was introduced to me by a friend of mine. It’s quite tricky– you’ll need the full power of your brain to tackle it. Luckily, there are levels, since it can take a while to develop a strategy. Give it a try, and let us know if you like it!


Looking to learn about some new mathematical artists? Check out this article, “When Math Meets Art,” from the online magazine Dark Rye. It profiles seven mathematical artists– some of whom we’ve written about (such as Erik and Martin Demaine, of origami fame, and Henry Segerman), and some of whom I’ve never heard of. The work of string art shown above is by artist Adam Brucker, who specializes in making “unexpected” curves from straight line segments.

gauss17_smallAnother of my favorites from this article is the work of Robert Bosch. One of his specialities is making mosaics of faces out of tiles, such as dominoes. The article features his portrait of the mathematician Father Sebastien Truchet made out of the tiles he invented, the Truchet tiles. Clever, right? The mosaic to the left is of the great mathematician Gauss, made out of dominoes. Check out Robert’s website to see more of his awesome art.

Finally, it snowed in New York City yesterday. I love when it snows for the first time in winter… and that got me wanting to make some paper snowflakes to celebrate! Here’s a video by Vi Hart that will teach you to make some of the most beautiful paper snowflakes.

Hang them on your windows, on the walls, or from the ceiling, and have a very happy wintery day! Bon appetit!

Tsoro Yematatu, Fano’s Plane, and GIFs

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Board and pieces for tsoro yematatu.

Here’s a little game with a big name: tsoro yematatu. If you enjoyed Paul’s recent post about tic-tac-toe, I think you’ll like tsoro yematatu a lot.

I ran across this game on a website called Behind the Glass. The site is run by the Cincinnati Art Museum. (What is it with me and art museums lately?) The museum uses Behind the Glass to curate many pieces of African art and culture, including four mathematical games that are played in Africa.

The simplest of these is tsoro yematatu. It has its origin in Zimbabwe. Like tic-tac-toe, the goal is to get three of your pieces in a row, but the board is “pinched” and you can move your pieces. Here’s an applet where you can play a modified version of the game against a computer opponent. While the game still feels similar to tic-tac-toe, there are brand-new elements of strategy.

Tsoro yematatu reminds me of one that I played as a kid called Nine Men’s Morris. I learned about it and many other games—including go—from a delightful book called The Book of Classic Board Games. Kat Mangione—a teacher, mom, and game-lover who lives in Tennessee—has compiled a wonderful collection of in-a-row games. And wouldn’t you know, she includes Nine Men’s Morris, tsoro yematatu, tic-tac-toe, and dara—another of the African games from Behind the Glass.

The Fano plane.

The Fano plane.

The board for tsoro yematatu also reminds me of the Fano plane. This mathematical object is very symmetric—even more than meets the eye. Notice that each point is on three lines and that each line passes through three points. The Fano plane is one of many projective planes—mathematical objects that are “pinched” in the sense that they have vanishing points. They are close cousins of perspective drawings, which you can check out in these videos.

Can you invent a game that can be played on the Fano plane?

Closely related to the Fano plane is an object called the Klein quartic. They have the same symmetries—168 of them. Felix Klein discovered not only the Klein quartic and the famous Klein bottle, but also the gorgeous Kleinian groups and the Beltrami-Klein model. He’s one of my biggest mathematical heroes.

The Klein quartic.

The Klein quartic.

This article about the Klein quartic by mathematician John Baez contains some wonderful images. The math gets plenty tough as the article goes on, but in a thoughtfully-written article there is something for everyone. One good way to learn about new mathematics is to read as far as you can into a piece of writing and then to do a little research on the part where you get stuck.

If you’ve enjoyed the animation of the Klein quartic, then I bet my last find this week will be up your alley, too. It’s a Tumblr by David Whyte and Brian Fitzpatrick called Bees & Bombs. David and Brian create some fantastic GIFs that can expand your mathematical imagination.

This one is called Pass ‘Em On. I find it entrancing—there’s so much to see. You can follow individual dots, or hexagons, or triangles. What do you see?


This one is called Blue Tiles. It makes me wonder what kind of game could be played on a shape-shifting checkerboard. It also reminds me of parquet deformations.


A few of my other favorites are Spacedots and Dancing Squares. Some of David and Brian’s animations are interactive, like Pointers. They have even made some GIFs that are inspired by Tilman Zitzmann’s work over at Geometry Daily (previously).

I hope you enjoy checking out all of these new variations on some familiar mathematical objects. Bon appetit!

Reflection Sheet – Tsoro Yematatu, Fano’s Plane, and GIFs

TesselManiac, Zeno’s Paradox, and Platonic Realms

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Before we begin, we’d like to thank all of you who have checked out the site in the past week. Since we’ve kicked off our share campaign, we’ve had so many new visitors and heard from many of them, too! Reading your feedback – whether a recommendation, some praise, a question, or just a brief, “Hello!” – brings us great joy and helps us to know that you all are out there.

Whether you’re a regular reader or visiting the site for the first time, we’d like to ask you for a little favor. If you see some math you like, share it with someone who you think would like it, too! Do you love the burst of excitement that you get from reading about a new mathematical idea, seeing an original piece of math artwork, or trying out a new game? Do you know someone who would love that, too? Then tell them about Math Munch – we’d love to spread the joy.

If you enjoy Math Munch, join in our “share campaign” this week.

You can read more about the share campaign here. There are lots of ways to participate, and you can let us know about your sharing through this form. We’d love to see the share total rise up to 1000 over the course of the next week.

Now for the post!


Lee boxThis beautiful tessellated wooden box was made by computer scientist and mathematical artist Kevin Lee. I met Kevin two weeks ago at the MOVES conference (which Justin and Paul have both written about already). Kevin teaches computer science at Normandale Community College in Minnesota. He makes woodcut tessellations (which won an award for the “Best Textile, Sculpture, or Other Medium” at the Joint Mathematics Meetings art exhibition this year!). He’s also used a combination of his knowledge of computer science and his love of Escher-type tessellations to make software that helps you create tessellations. His new software, TesselManiac!, is due out soon (watch this short movie Kevin made about it for the Bridges conference), but you can download an older version of the software here and play a preview version of The Flipping Tile Game.

tesselmaniac pictures

To play this game, you must fill in an outline of a tessellation with the piece given. You can use any of four symmetry motions – translation (or shift), rotation, reflection, or glide reflection (which reflects the tile and then translates it along a line parallel to the line of reflection). You get points for each correct tile placed (and lose points if you have to delete). Translations are the simplest, and only give you 5 points each. Reflections are the most difficult – you get 20 points for each one used!

dot to dotWhile you’re downloading The Flipping Tile Game, try one of Kevin’s Dot-to-Dot puzzles. These are definitely not your typical dot-to-dot. Only the portion of the image corresponding to one tile in the tessellation is numbered. Once you figure out the shape of that single tile, you have to figure out how to number the rest of the puzzle!

Lucky for us, Kevin has agreed to answer some questions about his life and work as a math artist and computer scientist. Leave a question for Kevin here. (We’ll take questions for the next two weeks.)

tortoiseI’ve recently been thinking about a paradox that has puzzled mathematicians for centuries. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s one of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno‘s paradoxes of motion, and it goes like this: Achilles (a really fast Greek hero) and a tortoise are going to run a race. Achilles agrees to give the tortoise a head-start, because the tortoise is so slow. Achilles then starts to run. But as Achilles catches up with the tortoise, the tortoise moves a little further. So the tortoise is still ahead. And as Achilles moves to catch up again, the tortoise moves even further! Sounds like Achilles will never catch up to the tortoise, let alone pass him… But that doesn’t make sense…

Will Achilles lose the race??? Check out this great video from Numberphile that explains both the paradox and the solution.

logo_PR_225_160While I was looking for information about this paradox, I stumbled across a great math resource site called Platonic Realms. The homepage of this site has a daily historical fact, mathematical quote, and puzzle.

The site hosts a math encyclopedia with explanations of all kinds of math terms and little biographies of famous mathematicians. You can also read “mini-texts” about different mathematical topics, such as this one about M. C. Escher (the inspiration behind the art at the beginning of this post!) or this one about coping with math anxiety.

I hope we here at Math Munch have given you something to tantalize your mathematical taste buds this week! If so, we’d love it if you would pass it along.

Thank you for reading, and bon appetit!

Rush hourP.S. – We’ve posted a new game, suggested to us by one of our readers! It’s an online version of Rush Hour. Check it out!