Tag Archives: trigonometry

Braids, Hacktastic, and Rock Climbing

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!


Math hair braiding art by So Yoon Lym, shown at the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings.

First up, a little about one of my favorite things to do (and part of what got me into math in the first place!): hair braiding. If you’ve ever done a complicated braid in someone’s hair before, you might have had an inkling that something mathematical was going on. Well, you’re right! Mathematicians Gloria Ford Gilmer and Ron Eglash have spent much of their careers studying and teaching about the math that goes into hair braiding.


See the tessellation?

In their research, Gloria and Ron investigate how math can improve hair braiding, how hair braiding can improve math, and how the overlap between the two can teach us about how different cultures use and understand math. As Gloria shows in her article on math and braids, tessellations are very important to braided designs.


And so are fractals! Ron studies how fractals are used in African and African American designs, including in the layouts of towns, tile patterns, and cornrow braids. (Watch his TED Talk to learn more!) On his beautiful website dedicated to the math of cornrows, Ron shows how braiders use tools essential to making fractals to design their braids.

programmed braid

Just like when making a fractal, braid designers repeat the same shape while shifting, rotating, reflecting, and shrinking it. You can design your own mathematical cornrow braid using Ron’s braid programming app! If you’ve ever used Scratch, this app will look very familiar. I made the spiral braid on the right using the app. Next challenge: try to make your braid on a real head of hair…

trig bracelets Laura Taalman

Next up, a little about something I wish I could do: make awesome 3D-printed art! Here’s a blog that might help me (and you) get started. Mathematician Laura Taalman (who calls herself @mathgrrl on Twitter) writes a blog called Hacktastic all about making math designs, using a 3D-printer and many other tools. She has designs for all kinds of awesome things, from Menger sponges to trigonometric bracelets. One of the best things about Laura’s site is that she tells you the story behind how she came up with her designs, along with all the instructions and code you’ll ever need to make her designs yourself.

Rock climbing Skip

Skip Garibaldi, climbing

Finally, a little about something I’m trying to learn to do better: rock climbing! Mathematician Skip Garibaldi loves both math and rock climbing– so he decided to combine his interests for the better of each. In this video, Skip discusses some of the mathematical ideas important to rock climbing– including some essential to a type of climbing that I find most intimidating, lead climbing. Check it out!

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!