Tag Archives: visualization

Zippergons, High Fashion, and Really Big Numbers

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

Bill Thurston

Bill Thurston

Recently I attended a conference in memory of Bill Thurston. Bill was one of the most imaginative and influential mathematicians of the second half of the twentieth century. He worked with many mathematicians on projects and had many students before he passed away in the fall of 2012 at the age of 65. You can read Bill’s obituary in the New York Times here.

Bill worked where geometry and topology meet. In fact, Bill throughout his career showed that there are rich connections between the two fields that no one thought was possible. For instance, it’s an amazing fact that every surface—no matter how bumpy or holey or twisted—can be given a nice, symmetric curvature. A uniform geometry, it’s called. This was proven by Henri Poincaré in 1907. It was thought that 3D spaces would be far too complicated to be behave according to a similar rule. But Bill had a vision and a conjecture—that every 3D space can be divided into parts that can be given uniform geometries. To give you a flavor of these ideas, here’s a video of Bill describing some unusual and fabulous 3D spaces.

Any surface can be given a nice, symmetric geometry.

Any surface can be given a uniform geometry. Even a bunny. Another video.

As you can probably tell, visualizing and experiencing math was very important to Bill. He even taught a course with John Conway called Geometry and the Imagination. Bill often used computers to help himself see the math he was thinking about, and he enjoyed making hands-on models as well. Beginning in spring of 2010, Bill and Kelly Delp of Ithaca College worked out an idea. Usually all of the curving or turning of a polyhedron is concentrated at the vertices. Most of a cube is flat, but there’s a whole lot of pinch at the corners. What if you could spread that pinching out along the edges? And if you could, wouldn’t longer and perhaps wiggly edges help spread it even better? Yes and yes! You can see some examples of these “zippergons” that Bill and Kelly imagined and made in this gallery and read about them in their Bridges article.

A zippergon based on an octahedron.

A paper octahedron zippergon.

Icosadodecahedron.

A foam icosadodecahedron zippergon.

One of Bill’s last collaborations happened not with a mathematician but with a fashion designer. Dai Fujiwara, a noted creator of high fashion in Tokyo, got inspired by some of Bill’s illustrations. In collaboration with Bill, Dai created eight outfits. Each one was based on one of the eight Thurston geometries. You can see the result of their work together in this video and read more about it in this article.

Isn’t it amazing how creative minds in very different fields can learn from each other and create something together?

Richard Evan Schwartz (self-portrait)

Richard Evan Schwartz (self-portrait)

Richard Evan Schwartz was one of the speakers at the conference honoring Bill. Rich studied with Bill at Princeton and now is a math professor at Brown University.

Like Bill, Rich’s work can be highly visual and playful, and he often taps the power of computers to visualize and analyze mathematical structures. There’s lots to explore on Rich’s website. Check out these applets he has made, including ones on Poncelet’s Porism, the Euclidean algorithm (previously), and a game called Lucy & Lily (JAVA required). I love how Rich shares some of his earliest applet-making efforts, like Click On A Triangle To Change Its Color. It’s motivating to see that even an accomplished mathematician like Rich began with the basics of programming—a place where any of us can start!

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 2.54.37 AMOn Rich’s site you’ll also find information about his project “Counting on Monsters“. And you should definitely make time to read some of the conversations that Rich has had with his five-year-old daughter Lucy.

Recently Rich published a wonderful new book for kids called “Really Big Numbers“. It is a colorful romp through larger and larger numbers and layers of abstraction, with evocative images to light the way. Check out the trailer for “Really Big Numbers” below!

Do you have a question for Rich—about his book, or about the math that he does, or about his life, or about Bill? Then send it to us in the form below and we’ll try to include it in our interview with him!

EDIT: Thanks for all your questions! Our Q&A with Rich will be posted soon.

Diana and Rich

Diana and Rich

Diana and Bill

Diana and Bill

Bill taught Rich, and Rich in turn taught Diana Davis, whose Dance Your PhD video we featured a while back. In fact, Bill’s influence on mathematics can be seen throughout many of our posts on Math Munch. Bill collaborated with Daina Taimina on hyperbolic crochet projects. He taught Jeff Weeks and helped inspire the games and software Jeff created. Bill oversaw the production of the film Outside In about the eversion of a sphere. He even coined the mathematical term “pair of pants.”

Bill’s vision of mathematics will live on in many people. That could include you, if you’d like. It’s just as Bill wrote:

In short, mathematics only exists in a living community of mathematicians that spreads understanding and breaths life into ideas both old and new.

Bon appetit!

Newroz, a Math Factory, and Flexagons

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

You’ve probably seen Venn diagrams before. They’re a great way of picturing the relationships among different sets of objects.

But I bet you’ve never seen a Venn diagram like this one!

Frank Ruskey

That’s because its discovery was announced only a few weeks ago by Frank Ruskey and Khalegh Mamakani of the University of Victoria in Canada. The Venn diagrams at the top of the post are each made of two circles that carve out three regions—four if you include the outside. Frank and Khalegh’s new diagram is made of eleven curves, all identical and symmetrically arranged. In addition—and this is the new wrinkle—the curves only cross in pairs, not three or more at a time. All together their diagram contains 2047 individual regions—or 2048 (that’s 2^11) if you count the outside.

Frank and Khalegh named this Venn diagram “Newroz”, from the Kurdish word for “new day” or “new sun”. Khalegh was born in Iran and taught at the University of Kurdistan before moving to Canada to pursue his Ph.D. under Frank’s direction.

Khalegh Mamakani

“Newroz” to those who speak English sounds like “new rose”, and the diagram does have a nice floral look, don’t you think?

When I asked Frank what it was like to discover Newroz, he said, “It was quite exciting when Khalegh told me that he had found Newroz. Other researchers, some of my grad students and I had previously looked for it, and I had even spent some time trying to prove that it didn’t exist!”

Khalegh concurred. “It was quite exciting. When I first ran the program and got the first result in less than a second I didn’t believe it. I checked it many times to make sure that there was no mistake.”

You can click these links to read more of my interviews with Frank and Khalegh.

I enjoyed reading about the discovery of Newroz in these articles at New Scientist and Physics Central. And check out this gallery of images that build up to Newroz’s discovery. Finally, Frank and Khalegh’s original paper—with its wonderful diagrams and descriptions—can be found here.

A single closed curve—or “petal”— of Newroz. Eleven of these make up the complete diagram.

A Venn diagram made of four identical ellipses. It was discovered by John Venn himself!

For even more wonderful images and facts about Venn diagrams, a whole world awaits you at Frank’s Survey of Venn Diagrams.

On Frank’s website you can also find his Amazing Mathematical Object Factory! Frank has created applets that will build combinatorial objects to your specifications. “Combinatorial” here means that there are some discrete pieces that are combined in interesting ways. Want an example of a 5×5 magic square? Done! Want to pose your own pentomino puzzle and see a solution to it? No problem! Check out the rubber ducky it helped me to make!

A pentomino rubber ducky!

Finally, Frank mentioned that one of his early mathematical experiences was building hexaflexagons with his father. This led me to browse around for information about these fun objects, and to re-discover the work of Linda van Breemen. Here’s a flexagon video that she made.

And here’s Linda’s page with instructions for how to make one. Online, Linda calls herself dutchpapergirl and has both a website and a YouTube channel. Both are chock-full of intricate and fabulous creations made of paper. Some are origami, while others use scissors and glue.

I can’t wait to try making some of these paper miracles myself!

Bon appetit!