Tag Archives: symmetry

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